TEEN LIBRARIAN'S REVIEW:
I recently realized I've read (and loved) many a Sarah Dessen book in my time, yet had somehow overlooked 2006's "Just Listen." Forgive my omission!
I really enjoyed "Just Listen." Do I think it's Sarah's strongest book ever? No. Did I have some issues with it? Yes. Would I recommend it to a teen girl? In an absolute heartbeat.
There's some jumping about in the timeline of "Just Listen," which I found quite effective. We meet Annabel straight off knowing that something happened at an end of school year party, something that destroyed her friendship with the bitchy diva Sophie and made Annabel a popular topic for the rumor mill. For much of the novel, we just don't know what it is. As the new school year begins, Annabel feels completely ostracized, to the point where she spends her lunch hour sitting on a bench — a safe distance away — from the violent loner Owen Armstrong. While Owen intently listens to his ipod, Annabel just wishes for time to pass. Because this is a teen novel — and I say that with love! — one day Owen and Annabel start talking, shortly after Annabel is harassed by Sophie.
Owen and Annabel slowly form a friendship that revolves around music and honesty. Yes, you read that correctly. Owen isn't really violent, although he does have some history with the fisticuffs. Now he's a disciple of a court-ordered anger management program, meaning he doesn't let Annabel use the half-truths and evasions she usually employs to cover up her pain. Owen is flat-out honest, opinionated, and pretty much the type of friend any girl would love to have. He also basically lives for music of all genres and types, as long as it's not the popular bubblegum stuff. It's not surprising then that Owen's early Sunday radio show features tracks of chanting monks and industrial noise.
So what doesn't work so well here? I found Annabel to be a bit of a blank slate. I never felt a connection to her. Part of this is because for much of the book Annabel holds so much of herself back. Yes, she's hanging onto a tough secret, but it extends beyond that. Annabel is always agreeing to her mom's modeling gig requests or refusing to take the extra step to engage a long ago friend. She is forever tentative, leaving too much unspoken. It is only in her scenes with the patient, bold Owen, who challenges her repeatedly, that she truly blossoms as a living, breathing character. I often only understood or related to Annabel's character when she was paired with Owen.
Ok, so that was the major glitch for me but also, oddly, a strong point, because Owen is a fully developed character. He went way beyond the stock sweet-kind-secretly awesome YA love interest who lives in many a teen novel. Instead, Owen seemed like an actual boy. He could be obnoxious in his honesty — particularly about the purity of music — and demanding as a friend, but he was also caring without being cloying or earnest. Plus, he displayed a believably goofy (and, yes, endearing) side around his kid sister, especially for a tough guy. Indeed, as we learn in the end, Owen's not quite so cured with the whole anger management issue. Yay for flawed characters!
I also liked the family dynamic and how Annabel's older sisters play subtle roles in her own self-growth. In particular, Annabel's beautiful, broken sister Whitney serves as a quiet inspiration in doing small things like growing herbs in ceramic pots. Whitney's recovery from anorexia develops mostly offstage, which is how it should be. This is Annabel's story, and its depth is only increased by smartly inserting these small, telling moments with her family.
Lastly, I must again commend Sarah Dessen for continually showing that girls work better as friends than as enemies. (See my review of Sarah's "Along for the Ride" for more discussion of this topic.) It's just plain gratifying to see girls portrayed so positively. I loved in "Just Listen" how two different female characters, both one-time friends of Annabel's, had completely different interpretations of how those friendships ended and where they now stood. Those kinds of mixed signals among girlfriends are frustratingly real and, as such, a wonderful addition to the story.
"Just Listen" has been wildly popular at my library since its release, so I recognize I am preaching to the choir here. While perhaps not Sarah's best book, it stands quite well on its own merits. Read it for the lyrical passages, the quietly touching moments, the cool music references (watch out, David Levithan!), the important message about revealing your heart's truth, and, of course, for the small butterflies created by Owen and Annabel's relationship. There's a bit of strong language here, but, as with Sarah's other books, nothing that should bother most middle schoolers. I'm glad I finally got around to reading "Just Listen." I hope you enjoy it, too!