I had never heard of Just Listen (2006) or Sarah Dessen before reading this book, but it was on the “25 YA Novels Everyone–Even Adults–Should Read” list that I’ve been working my way through. So I picked it up from the library without knowing anything about it.
From the outside, Annabel Greene, a junior (?) in high school has the perfect life. She works occasionally as a model, with two model sisters and a loving mom and dad in a great house. But life is usually deeper and more complicated than what people see from the outside. Something happened over the summer and Annabel is dreading returning to school. Her ex-best friend is aggressively hostile and Annabel is alone and isolated. Her sisters, Whitney and Kirsten won’t even talk to each other. And Whitney is battling her own demons while her family copes in the typical WASPY way with avoidance and optimism. Annabel is under a tremendous amount of pressure to not add any more stress to her family with her own problems. So she buries everything and pretends that it’s all okay.
Until she gets to know Owen Armstrong. A combination of desperation and circumstances bring Annabel and Owen together. He’s someone Annabel never thought much about before except to be a little fearful of his size and his reputation. (At this point, this whole relationship reminded me of Thora Birch and Wes Bentley in American Beauty). Owen Armstrong has gone through anger therapy, and he is always direct and honest because holding his feelings in makes him explode. Annabel is honest with herself and how she’s feeling for the first time when she talks with Owen.
Life goes on and the semester continues. Finally, things come to a head with “what happened last summer.” Her usual practice of ignoring her problems and avoiding confrontation, hoping things will get better on their own isn’t working for her or Owen.
I was impressed by Dessen’s writing, her ability to capture realistic characters, and her adeptness at tackling important and troubling issues. I think this would be a great book for high school kids, especially teenage girls. The book discusses depression, anorexia, rape, friendship, and family. Even though I’ve been out of high school for quite a while now, I could still relate to Annabel and how and why she was struggling. I’d definitely recommend this one.
I only had a couple of small issues that took me out of the book a bit while I was reading. Dessen had a friend of Owen’s wearing a helmet used for the “attacker” in self-defense classes in his car. Apparently he forgot he was wearing it after he helped teach the class. All of those types of helmets I’ve seen are gargantuan, heavy, and hot. You can’t even take the rest of the pads off without taking off the helmet. I couldn’t imagine him forgetting that he had it on. Also ***SPOILER*** I didn’t like Owen beating up the bad guy in the end. It was stereotypical, unhelpful and made me think that Owen had taken a step backwards. Also, Annabel wouldn’t be able to just show up at a trial and testify like that. There are witness lists for a reason.
More of my reviews available here.