In case you’ve forgotten, we’ve been featuring Lili St Crow’s Betrayals as our Book of the Month in December. To close off the promo, Lili sat down and penned a review of Sarah Dessen’s Dreamland for your reading pleasure. Enjoy!
Dreamland by Sarah Dessen
The first Sarah Dessen book I ever read was Dreamland, and it is to Dessen I owe my reintroduction to the young adult genre. When I was of the age to be marketed to as a “young adult”, I found most of the offerings insipid to say the least, and downright patronizing at worst. I’m glad to say that the genre seems to have undergone something of a revolution in the last five to seven years, and Dessen holds a special place in my heart as the person who introduced me to a new breed of YA books.
Dreamland is about Caitlin O’Koren, a younger sister whose older sister Cass leaves home without a word on Caitlin’s birthday. The reason for her sister’s flight is beautifully shown but never spelled out: their mother’s almost frantic insistence on living her life through one of her children. Both O’Koren parents are flawed but not overly so, doing the best they can.
Caitlin, after living her entire life in Cass’s shadow, suddenly finds herself the focus of her mother’s ambitions. She’s now a stand-in instead of a postscript, and when she meets the appropriately dangerous-seeming Rogerson Briscoe, she makes the first of many abortive attempts at freedom. Unfortunately, Rogerson is a problem in and of himself. He has serious anger-management issues, a bad home life, and is exactly the wrong boyfriend for a vulnerable, uncertain girl.
Unfortunately, many real-life stories start out this way and end tragically.
When I was young enough to be a target audience for YA, the subject of teen dating violence—like so many other subjects—was taboo. I think what grabbed my attention most in Dreamland was Dessen’s unflinching but gentle look at the realities of such a situation. Rogerson is not a villain, he’s a messed-up kid. Caitlin is spoiled, yes, but she’s also loyal to her friends and trying to shoulder her family’s burden as well as she can. Caitlin’s mother is so devastated by her older daughter’s disappearance that her younger daughter becomes a figurehead to her, and Mr. O’Koren is uncomfortable with anything even relating to “girl talk” and prefers concrete action over emotional messes. All these things conspire to make an abyss Caitlin falls into, one she can’t extract herself from without help. She’s not completely a victim, and Rogerson is not completely evil.
I remember finishing Dreamland for the first time and feeling as if Dessen had reached into some of my most secret memories. The shame Caitlin feels, her need to “protect” Rogerson and cover things up, the pressure of her family’s loss, all these things felt familiar. It felt like someone was speaking the truth, and I do not remember the young adult books of my young adulthood ever giving me that frisson. Instead, I graduated early to the “adult” section of the library and didn’t look back—until Dessen.
Dreamland is not perfect. For one thing, the pacing is uneven and Caitlin’s therapy is not given nearly enough room. For another, all Dessen’s heroines start out (even if they haven’t always been) as upper-middle-class. Money is rarely an issue for the kids in her books, and it seems a shame that a writer of Dessen’s talents hasn’t explored that angle. Rogerson Biscoe screams “trouble” so loud, and Caitlin is such a sleepwalker, that occasionally the adult me wanted to shake both of them—as well as Caitlin’s mother. Still, the very strength of my emotional response tells me that these are well-crafted characters. If they weren’t, I wouldn’t have fallen so hard into the world of the book, nor would I reread it with my heart in my mouth each time.
I’ve read most, if not all, of Dessen’s other young adult books, and been entertained each time. Dreamland, however, remains something special. Every time I read it, it’s like the author—and Caitlin herself—are speaking directly to me. Which is a feeling to treasure, whether one is seventeen or seventy. Dessen opened up the new world of the young adult genre for me, and I’m glad to note that books for younger readers are not the clichéd swill that was the only thing on offer when I was significantly younger than I am now. Each time I see a new Dessen book, I feel a thrill and reach for my bank card.
And that, as a reader, is the highest compliment I can give.