Review: Just Listen by Sarah Dessen

Just Listen book coverI first read Just Listen a few years ago and I loved it, mostly for Owen, the male lead. Not because he was swoonworthy or whatever in the typical sense. No, it was because he was hilarious (as was his sister and his relationship with her). Also, I could relate to him and his frustrations with Annabel (I had the same frustrations). I recently reread the novel for my MFA and found it just as good as I remembered. I was still frustrated with Annabel and glad to see her change by the end, and I was still very fond of Owen and his anger management issues (doesn’t sound particularly funny, but it’s all in the way he and his sister talk about it).

It’s not too surprising that I couldn’t relate too much to Annabel, who’s working as a model on the local scene. Fortunately, she’s not one of those uber-skinny, unhealthy girls. Body image is actually really important to the story, as Annabel’s sister Whitney suffers from anorexia and much of the book revolves around this. Fortunately, Annabel herself has a fairly healthy view of herself and actually eats like a normal person.

The book is told entirely from Annabel’s perspective and it starts at the beginning of the school year (junior year, if I remember correctly). And Annabel’s got a big problem. Something happened at the end of the last school year that cost her her friendship with Sophie—and her entire social standing. This is noteworthy for a couple reasons: we don’t know what happened and Annabel doesn’t tell us until close to the end; and Sophie is a horrible bitch to everyone so it doesn’t reflect well on Annabel that she was friends with Sophie for as long as she was. Still, the point is that at the beginning of the year, Annabel doesn’t have any friends.

We learn pretty quick that Annabel can’t speak her mind. She’s a consummate people-pleaser. She has two older sisters both of whom have pretty distinct personalities, whereas Annabel gets kind of lost. We get the sense that her family doesn’t know her that well. We almost get the sense that she doesn’t even have a personality (that’s kind of how it felt to me, anyway). She’s just so nice.

She eats lunch on a wall outside the school vaguely near Owen, a big guy most people are scared of because of the time he punched this really obnoxious guy the previous year (Annabel even saw it happen). After something happens that gets them to speak for the first time, they strike up a very unlikely friendship which grows slowly over the course of the book.

As I mentioned, I loved this book. Still, it’s quiet and even slow-moving because we get lots of flashbacks along the way. I didn’t notice that the first time I read it because I was too busy wanting to see where their relationship goes and what actually happened at that party that pissed Sophie off. But this time, I found it interesting because normally that is a bad thing to do (stop the forward motion of the story by looking back) but for me it totally worked here because I was so invested in Annabel and I knew the past was the key to unlocking what happened. And as it turns out, what happened was a big deal and by the end Annabel is finally able to deal with it because of her growth that comes at least partially as a result of Owen’s influence.

So I enthusiastically recommend this to fans of contemporary YA. It’s deep and moving and entertaining all at the same time.