Just Listen – Sarah Dessen (6/32 2017 Reading Challenge)

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Annabel has everything in life – she’s a popular cheerleader, surrounded by popular friends. And, she works as a model. Until one day, after an incident at the party, her friends turn their backs on her, and she becomes a school’s recluse. Fortunately, she makes friends with an original loner and a music freak, Owen, who shows her the world of sounds. And teaches her that the truth is what matters and that she shouldn’t be afraid to speak up, because when she does, people will listen.

                The cover of the Polish edition promises me that the book is about “school, popularity, and rivalry.” Of course, there’s that. But I’d say that (fortunately) it’s about much more. Firstly, we have a family portrait. A family, where nobody speaks about their feelings, but hides in their rooms whenever something is wrong. A family with two older sisters, mother prone to depression and a quiet, withdrawn father. This family is what made the protagonist the way she is. Careful with hurting other people’s feelings and determined to fulfil her mother’s wishes to be nice to everyone.

                It’s dangerous to be nice all the time, as Annabel finds out. We may lose ourselves in the constant efforts to please other people. We may forget and get confused on not only what we want, but who we are as a person. Not speaking up is frustrating and white lies are sometimes worse than the truth.

                Owen teaches the protagonist that the truth is always best, even when it hurts. Because it hurts yourself more when you’re living a life that’s not what you planned. Ultimately, it may lead to depression and isolation. Finally, the book tells that it’s important to speak up, to tell what happened and not be afraid or ashamed. That people will listen and some, if not all, will understand.

                Basically, it’s some version of “The truth will set you free.”

So, the book wasn’t perfectly written or too sophisticated. Despite dealing with some important subjects (like accepting ourselves, and learning to be assertive), and important & dark topics – (rape, anorexia), it didn’t have that heavy feeling there might be associated with such topics. Instead, it was hopeful and even light in tone. I read it in approximately one day – it read really smoothly.

                The one thing I didn’t like is the protagonist. I understood her, I sympathized with her, but I wasn’t a fan. Not because she was just always nice to everyone – I can definitely relate to that! Not because she didn’t have courage to tell about what happened to her on the party, where her ex-friend’s boyfriend tried to rape her. That is definitely understandable. But because she was friends with Sophia in the first place. Sophia is the books version of the “mean girl” of high school. She’s manipulative, but exciting. Her moods change all the time, but she’s fun to be around (when she’s in a good mood). She’s self-confident and she knows what she wants and grabs it. But she also makes fun of other people, and is vindictive. I couldn’t understand why Annabel kept being friends with her for four years.

                Except for that, I have a feeling characters in that book were a little too one-dimensional, and sometimes cliché. From the reviews I read, most readers loved Owen. I can understand why. Tall, dark, handsome, reformed bad-boy. It has its appeal, even to me. But, for half the time he annoyed the hell out of me. I thought he was a “know-it-all,” and I suspect I would have disliked most of his music, too. Maybe I’m just not that smart to understand music on deeper level? Yeah, well.

                And there’s Sophie. She’s totally unbelievable. Mostly because, she doesn’t seem like a real person. She seems to possess all the bad qualities and not to possess too many of the good ones. In real life it’s always more complicated, but here Sophia’s inner life is almost completely ignored. And I just ain’t buyin’ that. Moreover, it’s sad that the author doesn’t dig deeper into Sophia’s problems with her family – they are only briefly mentioned.

                There’s one more “elephant in the room” for me. The book bears a striking resemblance to Speak by Laurie H. Anderson. Speak is a YA book that I think isSpeak! one of the best written I’ve ever read, so another book about more or less the same subject – well, the bar was high. And Just Listen didn’t get close enough.

                That said, I’m not criticizing the book completely. It reads fast, deals with important subjects, and has a relatable protagonist (except for the modelling business). For a Young Adult flick, it’s quite all right and worth reading.

My Rating 6/10

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