I have been on a Sarah Dessen kick lately. Her books are the perfect summer reading, even if my summer has largely been spent at work and it has been raining a lot. Perhaps that’s why they fit so well – this way, I get to read about sunshine and going to the beach and lazy days spent in backyards or at the mall, even when I’m not doing that stuff. Another good reason to keep on reading!
Dessen’s books often concentrate on girls, usually about fifteen years old, that are struggling to meet the expectations others have for them. Over the course of one summer, they come into their own – or start to. It always ends on an uplifting note, although it’s never an open-and-shut happy ending. This might sound like her books would get boring soon, but they don’t. Dessen really knows how to paint an atmosphere and suck you in until you remember what it’s like to be fifteen or sixteen and feeling like you don’t fit in anywhere.
Dreamland deals with Caitlin, sister to Cass, all-star athlete and academic on her way to Yale – until she runs away right before college begins, saying she needs some time to figure out her own life, away from her well-meaning but overbearing mother. This leaves Caitlin alone, at home, trying to fill the void her sister has left behind. Not surprisingly, she can’t, and she gets mixed up with a boy named Rogerson in the process. He makes her feel different, like she doesn’t have to be a less-perfect version of Cass, and she falls in love with him for that. He introduces her to pot (as an aside, a surprising number of Sarah Dessen’s books include at least casual references of pot – her female characters may be good at heart, but they’re never goody-goody) and she clings to that as things go from bad to worse. Because he also starts hitting her, bruising her all over her body.
And that’s where this book turns slightly dark, for a Sarah Dessen. Her characters always experience hardships, challenges, sink-or-swim situations. But I hadn’t quite expected this. And while some of what she writes is cliché – true, perhaps, but still cliché – like the long sleeves and how Caitlin just gives up – some of it does really ring true. The part where Rogerson lays into her outside for the first time had me crying because it does feel different when someone hits you outside, in public, where other people can see. It’s intensely humiliating but it’s also intensely freeing, because this time, it wasn’t you that broke the rules, but him. It was all nice and self-contained and it could have gone on for years, but he broke it wide open and whatever happens now isn’t your fault and you can let yourself be rescued after that, just like Caitlin did. So yeah, she got that right.
Dessen’s books are empowering, filled with quirky characters and epiphanies. I have a couple more to go before I’ve finished her entire oeuvre, and I think I’m going to save them, and savor them, before they’re all gone.