Chapel Hill author Sarah Dessen captures teen angst, love

You’ve got to love a young woman who works as a waitress while she’s struggling to write her first novel.

I’d heard that story forever about Chapel Hill’s Sarah Dessen, but only recently did I take the opportunity to read one of the dozen young adult novels she’s published over the last 19 years, many of them bestsellers.

Her latest is “Saint Anything,” a YA novel that’s certain to entertain any age. Dessen yokes the universals – teen angst, isolation, loneliness, fear, love – into tight, intimate prose that kept me fastened.

Sydney’s older brother, the charismatic Peyton, once golden, is in prison for driving drunk and striking an 11-year-old boy bicycling home. Peyton had been tumbling for years, and he was on probation when he struck and crippled the boy.

Always focused more on Peyton, Sydney’s distracted parents now barely notice her. Her mother waits obsessively for Peyton’s collect calls, and her dad buries himself in work. She wonders if she’s the only family member who carries any guilt about her brother’s careless act.

Her transfer from a private school to a public high school, with its jangle of bells and unfamiliar jumble of kids, deepens her isolation. Until … until … one day after school, she wanders into Seaside Pizza, where she meets Layla Chatham and her brother Mac, both from her school. The siblings work in the family-owned eatery.

The Chathams are a warm, connected family. The perfect antidote to Sydney’s. But of course nothing ever stays the same. Complications multiply. Sydney’s parents catch her taking a sip of alcohol, and now, for better or worse, she has their attention.

Dessen has strikingly captured here the ache of young love, the enveloping warmth of intimate friendships, the frigid hollow of loneliness. I’ll never again miss another Sarah Dessen novel.


Saint Anything

Sarah Dessen

Viking, 417 pages

Author reading

7 p.m., Thursday, June 4, The Regulator Bookshop, 720 Ninth St., Durham