Just Listen by Sarah Dessen

2006.  Penguin.  Hardcover. 371 pages.

From: the library

Recommendation from: Ana from Things Mean A Lot

In a nutshell:

Annabel used to be friends with popular Sophie, but the beginning of a new school year finds Annabel a scorned outcast for reasons kept a mystery until later in the book.

It doesn’t help that Annabel’s family has had a rough couple of years with her mother’s depression, her sister Whitney’s depression, and Annabel’s increasing reluctance to continue her part-time modeling work.

A burgeoning friendship with fellow outcast and avid music lover Owen Armstrong promises to shake up Annabel’s outlook on her life, if only she will let herself open up to it.


Usually my forays into young adult literature stick to fantasy and dystopian novels.  However, bloggers have consistently praised Sarah Dessen’s books and a review from Ana at Things Mean A Lot finally pushed Just Listen onto my to-read list.

I actually checked out the audio-book format first.  The reader’s interpretation of Mallory, Owen’s fashion-crazy little sister, was hilarious but I disliked her voicing of Owen.  Also, the reader seemed to give unnecessarily poetic emphasis to solid, but workaday sentences and this seemed silly to my ears.  So, to save the book from unfair detriment, I put a hold on the ‘regular’ book version and finished out my reading in that format.  Much better!

Although I am in my late twenties, I definitely identified with one of the main themes of Just Listen.  Owen is committed to always telling the truth, and pushes Annabel to tell him what she really thinks.  Annabel has been used to holding back and telling people what she thinks they want to hear, as opposed to giving her honest opinion.  She says what is nice, but not what is true. I know that I fall into that trap myself, casting a bland pall over my conversations and missing opportunities for real interaction.

And bravo to Dessen for the fleshed-out characterizations in Just Listen!  I was particularly impressed with her handling of minor characters.  Sometimes novels are like the fake town Sea Haven in the movie The Truman Show.  The background actors wait until Truman (unaware that he is the star of a reality show) wanders into their part of the set and then they snap into motion.  Dessen’s minor and background character feel like they’ve been ‘in motion’ all along and we are just catching pieces of their trajectory as they cross Annabel’s story.  I could easily picture most of them as the protagonists of their own interesting story. [Edited to add: I learned from An Adventure in Reading’s review that two characters who briefly appear in Just Listen are in fact the protagonists of another Dessen book!]

I will likely seek out another Sarah Dessen book in the future.  If you’ve read any others of hers, feel free to recommend which one I should try next.

Other Reviews:

Presenting Lenore – “Owen is a marvelous creation – an atypical love interest for a YA novel – raw, honest and real.”

Things Mean A Lot – “Just Listen manages to do a rare thing, which is to be a book packed full of issues that absolutely does not read like an issue-book.”

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