By Sarah Dessen, Viking, 432 pp., $19.99
Best-selling young adult author Sarah Dessen has established herself as the queen of the heartfelt summer read. Her 12th novel, “Saint Anything,” delivers a comforting predictability. Like so many of Dessen’s books, “Saint Anything” explores themes of family, first love, friendship, and the aftermath of tragedy. The ending is feel-good without being unrealistic.
Privileged 17-year-old Sydney is a self-described “good kid” who’s always felt overshadowed by her “shiny and charming” older brother, Peyton. Even when he’s in jail for a drunken-driving accident that left a 15-year-old boy paralyzed, Peyton remains the fulcrum around which the members of the Stanford family turn — especially Sydney’s mother, who refuses to see her son’s guilt. Sydney feels alone during the day at her new public school and lonely at home, where she’s invisible. “[A]ll I wanted was to get out of this house,” Sydney says, “be somewhere the ghost of my brother, not even dead, didn’t haunt every corner.”
She finds the antidote to her solitude and sadness when she impulsively enters the Chatham family’s pizza shop. Layla Chatham becomes a best friend; Mrs. Chatham, who has multiple sclerosis, a confidant; and Macaulay “Mac” Chatham a love interest. The rest of the cast includes Peyton’s manipulative, creepy best friend and the group of quirky teens Sydney’s friendship with the Chathams draws her into. The plot’s pace is steady, propelled toward a conclusion by small bursts of drama: Sydney and Mac’s burgeoning romance, Layla’s new relationship, and the many ways that her brother’s actions affect Sydney’s life.
“Saint Anything” contains some disorienting jumps in time and place (e.g., one moment readers are with Sydney at the Stanfords’ dinner table, the next they’re in the Chathams’ living room) and a few discordant sentences (e.g., “Together, we three formed an easy friendship, as we all felt a little older than our classmates.”). But the novel’s strengths — how it unpacks the perplexities of guilt, friendships, and family dynamics — are what readers will remember.
5 to 1
By Holly Bodger, Knopf, 256 pp., $17.99
While Dessen’s story is set in contemporary America, Holly Bodger’s provocative YA debut “5 to 1” takes place in 2052 in the matriarchal, walled country of Koyanagar, which was established after decades of a one-child policy and gender selection left the ratio of men to women in India five to one.
In Koyanagar, women are venerated and boys of all social classes are forced to compete in a series of tests for the opportunity to marry. “5 to 1” is told in verse and prose from two perspectives: those of 17-year-old Sudasa, who resents being forced to marry and longs to be free of her gilded cage, and Kiran, also 17, who hates that he has to take part in the corrupt tests and feels torn between his plan to escape the walled city and the pull to help Sudasa.
Thankfully, “5 to 1” doesn’t devolve into a commonplace story of star-crossed lovers. In fact, Sudasa and Kiran’s story is not even a love story per se. It’s more a tale about one soul recognizing something of itself in another, the finding of a sympathetic heart. As Sudasa and Kiran interact throughout the tests, they make each other stronger, allowing Sudasa to realize, “I didn’t want—/expect?—/love/from these Tests—/from this life?—/but that doesn’t mean/I will accept misery instead.”
Charlie, Presumed Dead
Anne Heltzel, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 272 pp., $17.99
“Charlie, Presumed Dead” by Brooklyn-based book editor Anne Heltzel has a very different mood from the previous two novels. It’s a whirlwind adventure/mystery that takes readers from France to London to India to Thailand. The frustrating conclusion provoked choice words that I would not repeat in front of my mother, but only because Heltzel’s mystery is so indulgently melodramatic. I didn’t want it to end as it does.
The story begins at the memorial service for Charlie Price, the wealthy son of a British diplomat, who is presumed dead after the explosion of his Cessna. It’s there that Charlie’s girlfriends, Lena Whitney and Aubrey Boroughs, meet. Both are shocked to learn about the other. Wealthy, worldly Lena, 19, and sheltered Midwesterner Aubrey, 18, are very different. Nonetheless, they band together for a global search for answers—because each has a secret reason she needs to make sure charming, manipulative Charlie is indeed dead.
Like “5 to 1,” “Charlie, Presumed Dead” is told from first-person perspectives: Lena’s, Aubrey’s, and Charlie’s. The novel sometimes gives in to weaknesses of the genre — specifically, overexplanation (for example, readers would have understood that Lena and Aubrey feel a connection without Heltzel reiterating it so often). But overall, this mystery is a compelling read, one that will provoke adventure-lust, a need to experience the strange, the fearful, and the unknown.
When Aubrey thinks, “It’s as though, in this one week, my identity has shifted, toppled, and rebuilt itself into something that makes me different from everyone I know,” she does not consider this metamorphosis a bad thing. Nor does she think it a negative when she realizes moments later that, “The life I had, it seems, no longer belongs to me at all.”Chelsey Philpot’s YA debut, “Even in Paradise,” came out in October 2014. Connect with her on Twitter @chelseyphilpot.