Title: Just Listen (2006)
Author: Sarah Dessen
Publisher: Viking Books
Genre: Young Adult, Contemporary
Extent: 371 pages
Release Date: April 6, 2006
Last year, Annabel was “the girl who has everything” — at least that’s the part she played in the television commercial for Kopf’s Department Store.
This year, she’s the girl who has nothing: no best friend because mean-but-exciting Sophie dropped her, no peace at home since her older sister became anorexic, and no one to sit with at lunch. Until she meets Owen Armstrong.
Tall, dark, and music-obsessed, Owen is a reformed bad boy with a commitment to truth-telling. With Owen’s help, maybe Annabel can face what happened the night she and Sophie stopped being friends.
I first picked up Just Listen as a teen — I was maybe 14 or 15, going through middle school and totally blind to the ways of the world. A friend let me borrow her copy and from then on, my life was forever changed. Sounds too dramatic? Well, this book solidified my friendship with her and she’s still one of my closest friends now, so I’d say nope, just realistic. It is also one of my favourite books of all-time, so I’m warning you now: this review is basically 100% praise and appreciation. 😛
Just Listen is the story of Annabel, youngest daughter of an ambitious mother, a model who doesn’t really want to be one, and ex-best friend of Sophie, the most popular girl at her school. We follow her as she goes back to school after an incident that leaves her ostracised by Sophie (and all of her classmates). In her isolation she meets Owen, a reformed ‘bad boy’ slash loner who helps her navigate these ~difficult times~ in her life.
“I just…I don’t always say what I feel.”
“Because the truth sometimes hurts,” I said.
“Yeah,” he said. “So do lies, though.”
Annabel is what I’d call a quintessential Dessen girl: quiet and lonely, somewhat damaged, somewhat unsure of herself. She has a trouble of telling the truth, believing that the truth will only hurt and people are better off not knowing. In this book, she learns to stand up for herself, to take more control of her own life, and to get to know herself — it’s a very refreshing change, and she’s a very likeable, relatable character. 💖
Yet it’s not Annabel but Owen who is the highlight of this book for me. In fact, the whole concept of ‘book boyfriends’ is lost on me except when it comes to this guy right here. He just treats Annabel with so much kindness: he’s patient with her when she’s uncertain, he pushes her to do better, he’s respectful of her boundaries, and he’s always, always honest with her. I’ve never seen a fictional teenage boyfriend more mature and lovable than he.
“This is the problem with dealing with someone who is actually a good listener. They don’t jump in on your sentences, saving you from actually finishing them, or talk over you, allowing what you do manage to get out to be lost or altered in transit. Instead, they wait, so you have to keep going.”
Dessen’s writing style is actually kind of hard for me to describe. A word for it, I think, will be quiet — it’s simple, it doesn’t wax poetic, but it’s beautiful, layered and reflective. Our character could be looking out the window, eating alone, or lying in bed, and suddenly this very activity she’s doing has a deeper, bigger meaning. This might not be for everyone, but I loved it. Everything is a symbol — every sentence has its meaning. It kind of encourages you (well, me) to look beyond what’s visible.
I admit: the nostalgia factor is a huge reason why I read, and re-read, and re-read Dessen’s books. Anyone who reads more than three of her books will know that she has a formula:
- Girl from a damaged/dysfunctional family meets Guy, who seems larger than life
- Guy and Girl become friends, usually with Girl’s reluctance
- Guy helps Girl sort out her issues
- All is well for a while
- Guy’s personal issues then surface and shake their relationship up
- Girl, now wiser, helps Guy solve his issues
- All is well again, this time possibly forever
I don’t deny that reading too many of her books in a short time might be boring. You might feel like you’re reading the same stories over and over again, with the character names and situations changed a little. But to me, it’s familiar instead of repetitive, and every time I read her books, Just Listen in particular, I find something new to love about it. It could be a scene that I didn’t use to pay much attention to, or a character that I didn’t feel play that big of a part. Because everything has a meaning, the whole book is full of new discoveries for me and it keeps me entertained every time I read it.
“There comes a time when the world gets quiet and the only thing left is your own heart. So you’d better learn the sound of it. Otherwise you’ll never understand what it’s saying.”
I could probably write 5,000 more words on this and turn it into like a ‘why Sarah Dessen is the best thing since sliced bread’ essay, but I don’t want to bore you, so to close off, I’ll just say this: READ THIS BOOK, GUYS. You won’t regret it. 💖