It's hard to imagine that anyone who reads fiction has not at some point encountered a romance that draws its protagonists from opposite ends of the economic spectrum. The rich-poor clash is one of the great themes of literature, popping up in almost every genre.
In recent years, YA authors — Sarah Dessen among them — have found great traction in such entanglements. Dessen's latest novel, "Saint Anything," follows a rich girl and a poor boy as they circle each other with interest, and a certain degree of wariness. But Dessen, whose previous books include "The Truth About Forever" and "Someone Like You," has more on her mind than crosscultural romance. She's in pursuit of the holy grail of adolescence: emotional honesty.
Her protagonist, 16-year-old Sydney Stanford, believes she has been obliterated by the light of her "shiny and charming" older brother, Peyton. Even her brother's fall from grace — at the start of the novel, Sydney is waiting for Peyton to be sentenced to prison for having crippled a 15-year-old boy in a drunken driving accident — brings no relief from feeling like the second-tier child. After the trial, her lawyer father disappears in a haze of work; her mother continues to obsess over the son who sits in a cell.
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Sydney orchestrates a switch from private to public school, but she is adrift with no emotional mooring — until the afternoon she stops at a pizza place for a slice and solitude. She meets a brother and sister, Mac and Layla Chatham, members of the working-class family that owns the place. The relationships that ensue trigger the start of her slow metamorphosis.
Layla becomes a best friend, Mac a potential romantic interest. They take note of Sydney's relative affluence — that's her BMW in the parking lot — but they're too busy working at the shop or doing household chores to be envious. Their parents possess a warmth missing in the Stanford household, loving their children while readily acknowledging their shortcomings. This is a family with sheltering arms.
But Sydney does not step into those arms right away. She starts and stops, stressed by discomfort over her family's money, by her struggle to deal with a mother who can't see her son for what he is — as well as guilt over the crippled boy that sometimes threatens to subsume her. "I was the sister of the neighborhood delinquent, drug addict, and now drunk driver," she reflects. "It didn't matter that I'd done none of these things. With shame, like horseshoes, proximity counts."
Sydney's interest in Mac evolves at a steady pace, encounter by encounter. There are no movie-worthy moments; when they finally act on their attraction, the moment is quiet — and private. "For a moment," she tells us, "we just looked at each other. … I was in a new place, with someone I didn't know that well, and yet it felt like the most natural thing in the world, another groove already worn, to lean forward as he did until we were face to face, his fingers still gripping my arm."
Dessen surrounds Sydney with friends and acquaintances who are for the most part decent — even good. But they are also fallible. Layla has terrible taste in boyfriends; Mac has food issues; others start to drift into other orbits. Their experiences and concerns will seem familiar, comfortable and perhaps resolvable.
"Saint Anything" doesn't have much in common with many recent YA bestsellers; there are no paranormal occurrences, for one thing. But keep reading. Sydney's reversal of fortune is a quiet marvel.
Viking: 418 pp., $19.99