Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Sarah Dessen and More

Caution:- The following is essentially a review of Dessen's latest book 'The Moon and More', but written in a pretty non-conventional way. So prepare to feel a little exasperated if you were only looking for a plot summary, overview and general deconstruction.

In a parallel universe Sarah Dessen and I may have been intimate friends. But thanks to reality playing spoil sport and imposing barriers of physical distance, cultural and age differences, I can only ever dream of being on first name basis with her.

I discovered Dessen's books during a formative period in my life, in those much feared years when we are transitioning into adulthood from our hapless teens, and held onto her stories for dear life, every time I had to get over a period of depression (possibly induced by a break down of relations with a friend or someone more than a friend) or whenever serious literature lost its appeal in my eyes. Perhaps, this is the point where you start scoffing at YA, lose interest in this review and proceed to ask -

"How much of an insight into real life problems can a mere YA writer provide us with?"

My answer is, you'll be surprised to know.

Prior to my fortunate discovery of Dessen's works, I had a very skewed view of American teens, believing them to be animals prowling the jungle called high school, all replicas of stereotypical characters (the jock-bullies, hot blonde cheerleaders, shy, geeky brunettes, bespectacled nerds who often have their heads flushed down toilets, Goths, social rejects and so on and so forth) shown in mediocre tv shows.

So it will be an understatement to say that Sarah Dessen made me heave a sigh of relief. For the first time ever, I realized all American teens may not be the violent brutes or weirdos I had naively assumed them to be, that they may not be that much apart from their Indian/Asian counterparts, and maybe just as humane and flawed as we are. They have their own moments of mute desperation, struggle to come to terms changes about to materialize and more importantly their relationships with their parents are not close to nonexistent. (contrary to beliefs held by a wide majority of Indians). In other words, Dessen's books throw light on real issues plaguing teens - drug addiction, sexual awakening, destitution, homelessness, unplanned pregnancy, irresponsible/abusive parents.

Her protagonists are adolescent young girls, usually hailing from broken families (raised by divorced/estranged/single parents) who navigate the many challenges life brings them face to face with as they attempt to transition into responsible adulthood. They are soft-spoken, do not throw unnecessary tantrums but go about their business exuding a quiet confidence, deal maturely with first stirrings of romantic attraction instead of melting into gooey puddles, learn a few life lessons all within the scope of a few hundred pages.

Dessen manages to make the story of their lives come alive. As if this was happening somewhere in time, in some other part of the world completely alien to my Indian self. And I was being given a privileged peek into the unfolding of a series of events neither too dramatic nor tinged with a touch of unreality.
There's no dramatic reunion between emotionally absent father and estranged daughter, there's no hot sexual tension existing between the romantic leads, there's no promise of a forever after. There are no violent arguments between disagreeing parents and rebellious kids either.

Dessen understands well that life is a bundle of imperfections. So instead of giving us a too-good-to-be-true antidote to all problems, a neat tying up of all loose ends, she gives us hope.
Hope for a future where the possibility of that neat tying up of all loose ends remains alive.

Her style is minimalistic. She never pretends that she is writing anything but YA or does not give into the temptation of showcasing her command over words or sentence construction, unlike a certain John Green who often goes overboard in his enthusiasm to create a line of distinction between other YA writers and himself. She only tells a story in her own simple, elegant yet understated manner, expecting us to read, enjoy and understand.

But I guess I have outgrown that period of attachment with Dessen's headstrong but dignified young adult heroines. I can no longer devour her stories with a kind of pleasant smile playing about my lips or shed tears as easily as I used to.

Even though I liked Emaline's tale of coming of age or the way she learnt how to hold on to her past while embracing a future, I did not retain anything from the story as soon as Emaline's last summer of high school life ended. I guess I am no longer the confused, disoriented girl struggling to find her place in life like most of her protagonists. And I am no longer as young as I used to be.

(A 3.5 stars to The Moon and More.)

But even so, Sarah Dessen and I go way back. She has been my companion since when I had willfully shunned the company of people I knew in real life. And I still can't seem to resist the urge to squeal like a little girl every time she responds to my tweet. So if she writes another book, I'll most certainly read it if not for anything else then for old times' sake. And who knows? Maybe I'll enjoy it too.

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  1. Fantastic post Sama. I love it. As someone who's still a hapless teen at heart, I understand when you talk about the insight one can glean from YA - especially when all that Indian literature has to offer are the super-cliched regurgitated bollywood-style tales of first love. I have read some great YA contemporaries this year and while I know I will one day outgrow this genre, I cannot deny the importance of having read these books at this particular time in my life.

    On a different note, I must get my hands on a Dessen book soon :)

    1. Thank you as ever, Scarlet. Although the genre YA as a whole is disappointing, there are quite a few hidden gems in it as well. I recommend any one among This Lullaby, Just Listen, The Truth about Forever, Along for the Ride.

  2. I love Sarah Dessen but her last two books have disappointed me. I'm still not sure if its me who has outgrown them or if its her fault.

    I loved your post. Being an Indian I could connect with all that you're saying. Her love stories are so real. I can't describe them any other way.

    1. Thank you for reading, Atmika. I am glad you were able to relate.


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