Thursday, February 11, 2010

Book review: "This Lullaby," by Sarah Dessen

This Lullaby (2002)
By Sarah Dessen
Speak / Penguin

A friend has convinced me to try my hand this year for the first time at writing children's literature; but I don't actually know anything about children's literature, so am starting the process among other ways by first reading a stack of popular books that have been recommended to me. This is my second of the contemporary "superstar" young-adult (YA) books out there, a whole series of post-9/11 titles now in my reading list that have each sold millions of copies, usually without most of us adults being any the wiser; in particular it's the 2002 project of the prolific Sarah Dessen, who has emerged this decade as one of the biggest and most passionately loved authors in the entire history of the YA format. (If her name sounds familiar to adults as well, it's because two of her books were once combined and made into the mainstream movie How to Deal, starring Mandy Moore.) And I have to confess, after going into this book thinking it was to be yet another sappy, pop-culture-laced rom-com targeted specifically to teenage girls (you know, like "Sex and the City" without the sex), I was instead absolutely blown away by how expansive, subversive, and just plain moving this book in actuality was, and can now easily see why Dessen's collective oeuvre has now sold into the tens of millions of copies. It's essentially a character-based dramedy centered around a bewitchingly complex antihero named Remy -- a self-righteous know-it-all who has just graduated high school at the start of our tale -- who has become a prematurely responsible grown-up because of her flighty romance-novelist mother (entering her fifth marriage at the start of the book), and whose dead father happened to be a famous '70s country-rock musician but deadbeat dad, a one-hit-wonder whose biggest song (now a massively popular wedding staple) is a cheesy lullaby written to Remy on the day of her birth (hence this book's title).

In fact, from an analytical standpoint, I'm starting to understand just how important it is to build as big an amount of complexity into characters as possible when writing for a younger audience, simply because of the lack of interesting things that younger characters can realistically do -- like many YA novels, the actual action in this book consists mostly of Remy and her friends driving around, going on dates, killing time at their minimum-wage retail jobs as the like, making it of utmost importance that these people be as interesting as humanly possible, to counteract the lack of action in the actual plot. And that's something Dessen is a master at, I've discovered -- because with each chapter, Remy gets just a little more fascinating, with Dessen very slowly revealing the out-of-control trainwreck our hero used to be, a reckless 15-year-old who liked to party and sleep around who has turned into an anal-retentive 18-year-old who no longer believes in the concept of love. And that of course is what then makes her relationship with sloppy teenage rocker Dexter so much more interesting than the usual YA novel, in that there are all these layers of complexity that Dessen has built up to get in the way -- Remy's distrust of musicians, her coldly calculating views on romance, her gun-shy attitude anymore about sex and drinking, her oddly adult world-weariness over money and stability, etc.

Now add to this some of the most sparkling dialogue I've ever seen in a YA novel, and Dessen's refusal to shy away from more sensitive material -- much like John Green's work, This Lullaby is full of sex, liquor, cursing and negligent adults -- and it's easy to see why people go as nuts for her books as they do, and why so many argue that the best of YA literature these days deserves to have the "Y" dropped off the label altogether. I can agree with that when it comes to a book like this -- I think it's fair to call This Lullaby as sophisticated and entertaining as any adult relationship dramedy (even down to its full-sized length), simply with all the main characters being teenagers. (And in fact, you could argue that a book like this is actually better than most of the "Devil Wears Prada" chick-lit crap being force-fed to adult women these days, making it interesting to speculate what female-oriented literature might look like in another ten or fifteen years, when this current wave of Dessen-loving teenagers become adults themselves.) It's been a big shock to learn this year about the current state of YA literature, but needless to say a happy shock indeed.

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