(Note: This review contains some spoilers.)
Sydney Stanford has always lived in her brother’s shadow. For a long time, Peyton was the golden boy of the family — handsome, athletic, fearless, good at anything he tried to do. Then the trouble started: Peyton started hanging out with a bad crowd, and began to get arrested for increasingly serious offenses. Still, Peyton was the sibling getting all the attention — even though the nature of that attention was changing — and Sydney still lived in his shadow.
Then came the news that Peyton had injured a young boy in a drunk driving accident. That was the arrest that finally earned him serious jail time.
Now Sydney is struggling to deal with a new reality, a new family dynamic, a new school, and new friends. When she meets schoolmates Layla and Mac Chatham, whose family owns a pizza restaurant near her school, Sydney finally feels she’s found a place to belong and people who see her as she really is. Layla becomes a close and supportive friend, and Sydney soon develops a romantic interest in Mac. She will need every ounce of support that both of them can give her as she deals with the tough new challenges in her life — and surprisingly, she will find that she has something to offer them, too.
Sarah Dessen’s “Saint Anything” has a lot to say about the value of friendship, and its capacity to help us through the tough times and help us find our identity. Layla’s instant eagerness to draw Sydney into her circle sounds almost too good to be true, but the relationships that result from it are deep, loyal, realistic, and enjoyable to read about. The Chathams have been experiencing a few rough and messy times themselves, such as older sister Rosie’s drug problem and Mrs. Chatham’s multiple sclerosis. They’re able to understand Sydney’s pain and welcome her in without judgment or condemnation.
All that said, it should be noted that Sydney’s new friendships don’t always result in admirable behavior. Like when Sydney helps Layla sneak around with her new boyfriend, despite doubts about his integrity and intentions. Or when the group indulges in underage drinking. Some forms of this are portrayed as unequivocally bad, such as Peyton’s drinking that leads to his accident, or Sydney’s trying a sip of vodka at home — especially since her mom catches her and cracks down on her — or another girl’s drunken episode at a party. But for some reason, when the group of friends go for a walk in the woods and drink beer together, this isn’t portrayed as such a bad thing.
(Also, those parents who have strong feelings about junk food might want to be aware of its ubiquitous presence throughout the novel! Except for Mac, who’s on a permanent diet and exercise regimen, all the kids are constantly gorging themselves. Layla in particular seems to subsist mainly on French fries, pizza, and candy.)
Sydney and her mother have trouble communicating, as her mother is constantly caught up in Peyton’s troubles and largely unaware of what’s going on with her daughter, and this leads to some serious consequences. For one thing, Sydney feels compelled to carry the burden of guilt for Peyton’s accident, as she feels that her parents don’t take her brother’s crime seriously enough. For another, she develops a tendency to deceive her mother. At some points, though, it’s hard to blame Sydney for this — as when her parents go out of town and leave her with Ames, a friend of Peyton’s whom she fears and distrusts. Sydney and Layla trick Sydney’s mother into letting Layla sleep over, so that Sydney won’t have to be alone with Ames.
It turns out that Sydney’s instincts are good, as Ames attempts to sexually assualt her late in the novel. He’s only stopped when Sydney’s father hears the commotion and comes to her rescue.
For all this, Sydney’s mother is portrayed not as a villain, but as a hurting, confused woman whose life has spun out of control. Their relationship begins to heal when Sydney drops everything to help the Chathams through a crisis, and her mother finally starts to see Sydney not as another accident just waiting to happen, but as the strong, loving person she is. Sydney and her brother also take the first steps toward reconciliation, as she starts to realize that he truly recognizes the seriousness of what he’s done and wants to make some changes in his life.
Aside from the behavior mentioned above, the book also contains profanity and some (non-explicit and non-specific) mention of sexual activity. Discussion of religion is rather vague. The Chathams are Catholics, at least nominally, and believe in the protection of patron saints; Mac wears a religious medal with a picture of Saint Bathilde, the patron saint of children, that his mother gave him. The title of the book, “Saint Anything,” comes from Mac’s gift to Sydney of a similar medal with the picture of an unknown saint. “It’s not just about one thing, but anything,” he tells her. “That way, it can be about what you want it to be.” The medal helps Sydney feel comforted and protected, but it doesn’t mean much more to her than that.
There’s a lot to like about Dessen’s warm, lively, complicated characters (except for Ames), but there are also some causes for concern in their story. Parents will want to keep both in mind as they consider this book for their kids.
Image copyright Viking Books for Young Readers. Review copy obtained from the reviewer’s local library.
Gina Dalfonzo is editor of BreakPoint.org and Dickensblog.