I am really good at quitting things cold turkey. One day when I was young I was reading and then thought, Wow, Nancy Drew books are fantastically racist and full of stereotypes. That’s bullshit. So I put the book down and never picked one up again until grad school, maybe. Maybe not even then. Can’t remember.
So basically that happened with Sarah Dessen, where I looked up and was like, Wow. Dreamland aside, these books are all about teenage girls who, even with little life experience, are convinced that love is stupid because their loser dad and self-employed, small business owner mother didn’t stay together. And they know this to be true despite the fact that they have never had to work hard for a second to get a date. But don’t worry, because a quirky boy will come along and change her mind with an over-exuberance for movies or music or something else that stands in stark contrast to the formal, rigid, conventional, reserved, or blue-color professional sphere of the self-employed mom. But with all boys, you will exhibit no sexual or lusty desire at all, and if the boyfriend brings it up you will maybe have sex but just because it’s a thing you do, not because you are actually excited or curious about it.
The last book of hers I read was either The Truth About Forever [IndieBound] or Just Listen [IndieBound]. So that means I stopped reading her in 2005 or earlier, until in 2012 or 2013 I was required to read Someone Like You [IndieBound] for class. That vaguely appealed to me because it was half the inspiration for the Mandy Moore film How To Deal, and I’m all about Mandy Moore, but I found that the book was just infuriating for me because I can’t stand when girls with boyfriends whine about how hard love is. I fully admit that 50% of that is based on my own personal angst and says nothing about her books, but I think the other 50% of the frustration is warranted, because it’s just so tired to have perfect girls with fake problems and real boyfriends with no personality in every. Single. One. Of. Your. Books.
That turned out to be somewhat true. Whether it’s because it’s actually better or because I’m better educated and know how to analyze literature now, I don’t know. Because by the end, I was so ready to be done with it. It matched the same formula I already outlined. And I found the main characters so flat (which was weird, since the supporting cast had a lot of personality) and empty, like I was being told what Emaline’s feelings and neuroses were, but I didn’t really see them. And Theo went from 0 to 60 to 0 without ever being a real person.
I will give Dessen some credit. Whether it’s on purpose or not, I do see that she was doing interesting things with class. Emaline’s mother is a teen mom who nonetheless finds a stable, mature relationship to be in and successfully raises her own daughter and two stepdaughters. Emaline’s dad (the one married to her mom) is loveable and present and blue collar and smart. Emaline’s biological father is an East Coast snob who wants to be nice but doesn’t really know what to do with the beach townies he thinks of Emaline’s family as. The out-of-towners think they’re better than the townies. Emaline is going to college, but one of her sisters is in cosmetology school. I do give props for the blue collarness, but on the other hand, Dessen’s books all seem to live in a dreamland (pun! haha) where class and money are pretend obstacles but not real ones, so this book doesn’t really dig into poverty or go anywhere near it.
I found Theo insufferable, and unlike other characters you find in fiction who would be annoying in real life but are loveable on paper, I could not see why anyone in their right mind would want to date him. I want to say that Dessen is working with the idea of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl and flipping it back on to guys, which is an interesting feminist strategy, but she doesn’t really go that far to unpack it OR to demonize it, so I don’t know what the point of it is. I mean, Emaline dumps him in the end, but not for a particularly interesting or strong reason. It’s so boring I don’t even remember the actual reason, just the general situation. And I literally finished the book two hours ago. I really want there to be an agenda in the regular use of the Manic Quirky Dream Guy trope Dessen keeps using, and I think it’s maybe tied to class, but I don’t think it’s sophisticated or interesting enough – even though it could be! It really could be! Because MPDGs are totally related to class status among other things, so why not?
Luke didn’t have much personality aside from being really nice. Even when he and Emaline were getting into things, it was all so reserved that it wasn’t interesting. Chaste romance is fine if that’s your thing, but this was there but not there at the same time. Nothing juicy OR romantic happened whenever they were portrayed as making out. Or something. I don’t know. Because I was kind of bored.
I don’t know. I liked it when I started it and then got more bored as it went on. But in this reading, I will take away some of the responsibility from Dessen and say that it’s not just her, it’s also that I don’t care for romance.