Featuring intriguing characters and tough questions, Sarah Dessen’s Just Listen is a worthwhile read. It’s complicated, say our reviewers, but in the best possible way.
By Dan Coyle
When I opened Just Listen, I set my cheesy-early-warning system to high alert because it wasn’t the kind of book I normally read. I’m happy to report that I was completely wrong. The author, Sarah Dessen, created a worthwhile read by taking us inside the mind and heart of an eloquent, imperfect, struggling teenager, all without giving into easy, obvious answers. Instead, she honestly and painfully wrestles with the Big Questions of Life: How do you establish your identity? How do you handle problems with friends and family? How do you tell uncomfortable truths to yourself and the world?
Adding up all the big issues that Annabel encounters makes Just Listen sound like a laundry list of today’s hot-button topics. Fortunately, Dessen handles each with a sure and understated touch—all told through Annabel’s voice. So, each topic reads like a natural extension of normal life. Which is, in fact, how they are.
Of all the various plotlines in the book, I particularly enjoyed the story of Annabel’s relationship with Owen Armstrong—the hulking, misunderstood kid obsessed with music. Owen is basically Heathcliff with an iPod and is compelling for the same reasons: he’s dark, slightly dangerous, and complicated. Moreover, he challenges Annabel’s worldview by exposing her to the power of music and big ideas. While the depth of Owen’s awesomeness occasionally stretches beyond belief (can any teenager be quite that nurturing and wise?), the arc of their relationship formed the real heart of the book for me.
What I liked most, however, was the way the book sparked conversations in our family. (We have one son and three daughters.) I think this was fueled by the book’s approachability, mixing its heavier issues with lighter, sweeter stuff like modeling and friend drama. It’s a solid recipe, and one that books (as opposed to movies or TV) are uniquely suited to deliver.
All in all, reading this book taught me three things: 1) I should read more young adult fiction; 2) I need to remember how complicated growing up can be; 3) Books like this can create a good space to deal with stuff that’s normally hard to talk about.
By Kaitlin Coyle
Just Listen surprised me. In roughly three and a half minutes, my brain shifted from “A model, a petty best friend, and a hunky lover boy? Sounds cheesy,” to “Wow. This is fantastic.” I picked up the book at 8:00 a.m. and finished it by lunch. Like all thrilling tales, Just Listen sucked me in and never let me go. I was never bored. My mind never wandered.
In other words, it’s a fast read.
Anyone can connect with the main character, Annabel. She’s anyone’s best friend: confused, affectionate and exasperating. I spent half the book cheering her on and the other half with my head in my lap.
Even more importantly, the author, Sarah Dessen, wrestles with heavy issues —without making them seem like heavy issues and without breaking character. She never preaches. She never sounds like a superior adult. Instead, she maintains the identity of a teenage girl by riding the emotional roller coaster to the end.
One flaw: it’s not a fairytale. In fairytales, the bad guys lose, the good guys win, the prince marries the princess, and everyone lives happily ever after. In fairytales, there’s closure. Just Listen, despite resolving its most pressing conflicts, leaves me wondering. “What happens with her ex-best friend?” “Does that guy go to jail?” “Does everything go back to normal?”
But, I took away two important lessons:
Lesson #1: What you see isn’t necessarily what you get. From page one, Annabel is labeled as “the girl who has everything.” A loving family, a modeling career, cool clothes—what more could a girl want? As it turns out, it’s really “almost everything.” Harsh realities haunt her seemingly plastic world.
Lesson #2: Good old regular normal boring life is actually pretty good.