Cover of Just Listen, featuring the torso of a girl in a tank and jeans listening to her iPod

About the Book

Title: Just Listen
Published: 2006
Swoonworthy Scale: 7

Cover Story: Body Bag It
BFF Charm: Yay!
Talky Talk: Straight Up Dessen
Bonus Factors: Sisters, Mysterious Loner Dude, Music Debates, Anti-After School Special, Dessen Easter Eggs
Relationship Status: Fantasy Engagement

Cover Story: Body Bag It

I’d like to find whoever told Viking that headless girls are the perfect match for Sarah Dessen and kick them in the balls/lady parts because there is NO WAY THAT WAS EVER A GOOD IDEA. Instead of feeling proud of reading such an awesome novel, I have to worry about people thinking I’m reading a book for pre-teens about How Our Bodies Change. NO THANKS. So body bag that headless girl and enjoy your Dessen in peace.

The Deal:

I never thought I’d feel sorry for a gorgeous girl like Annabel. She’s popular, she’s got a great family supporting her, and she even models on the side. Not only would I never pity her, I’m not sure I’d even LIKE her. That is, until I took a closer look and saw the cracks in her perfect life. Her older sister, Whitney, was forced to return home from her modeling career in New York due to a crippling eating disorder. Her mother clings to Annabel’s modeling career as if her life depended on it (and maybe it does). And then something else happens, something really bad, and Annabel can’t hold the pieces together any longer. Her life implodes, and she starts the first day of her junior year as a friendless social outcast, with no place to sit at lunch except the outside building wall where all of the other losers dwell. On one side, a few feet away, is her old friend Clarke, whom she dumped to hang out with Sophie, the uber-bitch who now whispers “Slut” at Annabel every time she passes. On her other side is Owen, a quiet, hulking dude with anger issues and an intense obsession with music.

Annabel finds herself (as do we all, girl!) drawn to the enigmatic Owen, who can talk forever about two things: 1) music 2) anger management. And while Annabel isn’t quite sure about Owen’s musical taste, his brutal honesty challenges her to examine the lies she’s been living in. Will she ever be honest with her mother about her distaste for modeling? Can she ever stop pretending that her sister, Whitney, is best left in isolation? And most importantly, can she tell the truth about the night when everything went from bad to endless nightmares? Since this is a Sarah Dessen book, I think you can guess the answer.

BFF Charm: Yay!

Yay BFF Charm

I never met a Dessen heroine I didn’t like, and Annabel is no exception. She’s insecure in spite of her good looks, and while she’s smart, she also lets fear overwhelm her better judgment. All that to say, she’s not perfect, and I love her for it. And while I never had a shot at a modeling career (y’all, I never even made it to Glamor Shots, WHAT), I definitely identify with Annabel’s unwillingness to make waves. She tries to be nice, always nice, and she believes that this attitude is the only way to make everything ok. As a teen, I had this same philosophy, and throughout the book, I kept wishing I could tell her: “Honey, being nice is sweet, but it won’t get you anywhere. Trust me, I tried the same thing. Sometimes you gotta just be honest with your feelings, even if it upsets someone. For example, “LET’S GO TP SOPHIE’S HOUSE cos bish DESERVES IT.” But it’s probably better that I’m not in the story, because Annabel gets to hear the same advice from a hot dude instead.

Swoonworthy Scale: 7

Sarah Dessen is the Willy Wonka of swoon. Seriously, I have this theory that if you go into her house, it’ll be this magical factory of colorful, whimsical machines shooting out Super Tension Builders and Everlasting Tingly Moments. The evolution of Annabel and Owen’s relationship is deliciously slow, allowing us to savor every detail, from Annabel’s careful study of him on the first day of school to their verbal sparring over music to a sudden, intoxicating awareness of their physical proximity. The chemistry between the two is more potent than a piece of three-course-dinner gum, and you’ll find yourself swelling up to massive proportions of romantic sighs. Also, DADDY I WANT A DESSEN GOLDEN TICKET. AND I WANT IT NOW.

Talky Talk: Straight Up Dessen

As I’ve said in my other reviews, Dessen is the master, nay, INVENTOR of the straight up talky talk. Her novels are the perfect blend of depth and escape, existing in a wonderfully comforting place between beach reads and intense literature. One thing I particularly noticed in this book is her gift for creating quiet moments. Even as the plot moves merrily along, you’ll encounter a scene that possess a beautiful stillness, a delicate sense of quiet when the main character takes time to really feel something. These scenes seem simple and ordinary, like Annabel making dinner with her sister, and yet I come away from them with a satisfying sense of awe. Dessen’s stories are exactly the type of novel that the phrase “curling up with a book” was created for.

Bonus Factor: Sisters

Meg, Jo, Amy, and Beth March hugging each other in a scene from Little Women

Maybe it’s because I’m an only child, but I love reading about sisters, even the annoying ones like Owen’s little sister, Mallory. Sure, she’d probably be a pain in the ass if she was my real sister, but reading about her nutty tween ways is totally adorable. Take, for example, this scene from her fashion slumber party:

“Do you like my outfit?” Mallory asked now, striking a pose, one hand behind her neck, eyes turned up to the ceiling. She held it for a moment, then resumed her normal standing position. “We’re doing all these different looks. I’m Evening Elegant.”

“We’re Daytime Casual,” one of the redheads told me, planting a hand on her hip. Her sister, who had more freckles, nodded, her face solemn.

I looked at the dark-haired girl with glasses. “Classy Workplace,” she mumbled, tugging at her dark dress.

“And I,” the blonde announced, twirling so her dress swished, “am Fantasy Engagement.”

“You are not,” Mallory said. “You’re Nighttime Formal.”

“Fantasy Engagement,” the blonde insisted, taking another spin. To me, she added, “This dress cost–“

“Four hundred dollars, we know, we know,” Mallory said, annoyed. “She thinks she’s a big deal just because her sister was a debutante.”

“When are we taking pictures?” one of the redheads asked. “I’m tired of being Daytime Casual; I want to wear a dress.”

“In a second!” Mallory snapped, irritated. “First Annabel has to see my room. Then she can advise us on our looks.”


In a more serious sense, I also loved the changing relationships between Annabel and her older sisters, Whitney and Kirsten. They’ve got such a realistic love/hate thing going, and their interactions struck me as incredibly authentic. Not that I would know, since I’m an only child. SIGH.

Bonus Factor: Mysterious Loner Dude

Jordan Catalano, a hot brooding stoner, in My So-Called Life

In Sarah Dessen’s swoon factory, the most highly coveted item is definitely her formula for Mysterious Loner Dudes. Other writers dream of it, less ethical ones scheme to steal it. I’m not sure how she does it, but here’s what we can deduce based on Owen:

1.  Muscular, manly physique

2.  Secretly sweet heart

3.  Scarred, slightly dangerous past

4.  Witty intelligence

5.  The ability to make mix CDs for a girl without seeming lame

Put all that together, and you’ve got a smokin’ hot guy that Annabel needs to GET WITH ALREADY.

Bonus Factor: Music Debates

Screenshot from High Fidelity, with the record store staff debating music

Remember those days when there was nothing that made you feel cooler than arguing with someone about music? You know, whether the Beatles are overrated, or which bands used to be good but then totally sold out? As an adult, I find those conversations incredibly obnoxious, but I think they’re an essential part of being a teenager. Plus Owen’s insane passion for music is totally adorable, as is Annabel’s whole, “Wait, you mean, random beeps and static is considered music?” attitude.

Bonus Factor: Anti-After School Special

Old ad for an After School Special with a red X over it

I gotta give a shout-out for the way this book handles serious issues like the Bad Thing That Happened and Whitney’s eating disorder. Both situations are realistic and painfully honest without dissolving into a Public Service Announcement.

Bonus Factor: Dessen Easter Eggs

Wooden sign for Lakeview surrounded by trees and plants

I get a thrill out of spotting characters and locations from Dessen’s other books, and Just Listen is FULL of hidden eggs, from the Truth Squad (Hate Spinnerbait!) to the Lakeview Models.

Relationship Status: Fantasy Engagement

This book makes me want to twirl around in a big fancy dress and swoon myself silly. This ain’t no Daytime Casual relationship, ok? We’re totally serious about each other, and while we’ve already shared plenty of wonderful moments together, I can’t wait to create more. Especially of the Nighttime Formal variety.

FTC Full Disclosure: I bought this book with my own damn money. I received neither cocktails nor money in exchange for this review.

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Sarah lives in Austin, and believes there is no such thing as a guilty pleasure, which is part of why she started FYA in 2009. Growing up, she thought she was a Mary Anne, but she's finally starting to accept the fact that she's actually a Kristy.