Sarah Dessen’s Novels Give Young Women a Chance to Shine

With all the stereotypes of painting teenage girls as phone-obsessed idiots, Dessen changes that image within her novels.
September 15, 2017
9 mins read

I discovered Sarah Dessen’s novels when I was twelve, falling in love with them immediately due to Dessen’s portrayal of teenage female characters. Dessen has written thirteen novels, all of which focus around a teenage girl, usually fifteen to eighteen-years-old, who is dealing with a crisis. Even though I’m not a teenager anymore, I still value Dessen’s novels, because she taught me that high school girls don’t have to be portrayed as ditzy, love-obsessed females, but instead, young women who face challenges with family, friends and love interests. Dessen writes her female characters as humans who just happen to be young women. And by creating heroines with complex, diverse personalities, she ensures her novels’ relatability, which allows her writing to appeal to a wide audience.

My favorite novel of hers is “The Truth About Forever,” which focuses around Macy, an eighteen-year-old, during the summer before her senior year. Macy is a perfectionist, due to her mom being a serious CEO of her real-estate business and a stickler for rules, and is in a boring relationship with her boyfriend, Jason, who leaves for Brainiac Camp at the start of the novel. Macy finds herself bored out of her mind while studying for the SATs all summer, but she refuses to change her routine for fear of disappointing her mom’s high expectations. Later, when she meets a small catering company made up of wacky people working at one of her mom’s open houses, she decides to change her plans.

The characters that make up the catering company, called Wish, live in a very imperfect world, where chaos is a friend and mistakes happen every time one of them walks around with a tray, leaving a trail of shrimp puffs behind. Macy begins to work for them, despite her mom’s obvious disapproval. While working with Wish, Macy meets Wes, a welder with a tragic past whose signature sculptures feature hands holding hearts.

When Macy and Wes become romantically interested in each other, their relationship feels real. They spend the entire novel getting to know each other, playing fun word games like Truth where one person must tell a truthful answer to the question being asked. Macy and Wes’ relationship allows both to shine, without making Macy fall in love with Wes after meeting him for the first time, as it happens to go in many other young adult novels.

One aspect of Macy’s character that makes her grounded and relatable, and not just a teenage girl falling in love, is that before the novel starts, her father died when he and Macy went for a run together. She ran ahead, not realizing her dad was slowing down, until she looked back and saw him on the ground. Macy struggles with the impact of her dad’s heart attack throughout the novel. I think that people stereotype young women—not just in novels, but in real life—to be people obsessed with their phones who have no ideas floating through their heads, but so many young women go through challenges in their lives (as does anyone no matter the age or gender), so seeing Macy represented as an all-around developed character who can fall in love realistically and have an interesting backstory is great to read for a young woman like me.

Another one of Dessen’s novels that I personally love is “This Lullaby,” which follows Remy, a serial dater, who literally has a boyfriend for every occasion and season. So, there’s a spring break boyfriend who lasts little less than a month, and a fall boyfriend, who’s lucky to see two months pass by and a winter break boyfriend who only gets Christmastime to spend with Remy. The reason Remy is such a great character is because she’s utterly flawed. After her dad abandons her as a child, leaving her with intimacy issues, she copes by dating and using tons of guys to fill that void. She never lets a guy get close enough to her, until she meets the adorkable, goofy Dexter who goes against the type of guy she would ever date.

Remy shows legitimate progress throughout the novel. She isn’t painted as miss-goody-two-shoes—she describes herself as a bitch because she uses boys—but she isn’t an unlikable character, either. Through her relationship with Dexter, she learns to be vulnerable and less afraid of intimacy, a growth of maturity that is awesome to read about. In Remy, as with Macy in “The Truth About Forever,” readers can see the variety that Dessen gives her characters, a complexity that makes the protagonists feel layered, which makes for really interesting stories.

One of Dessen’s most intense novels is “Dreamland,” which details the physical, sexual and mental abusive relationship between Caitlyn and Rogerson. I love that Dessen doesn’t paint Caitlyn as an idiot for getting into an abusive relationship, because there’s such a stigma over blaming women for “allowing” themselves to get dragged into one. Dessen sets up Caitlyn’s mindset as to why she would stay with Rogerson: her sister ran away from home, her parents’ lack of attention making her feel isolated, leading to her forming a stronger connection with Rogerson, and Caitlyn’s belief that she was always second place to her sister, so Rogerson’s attention means a lot to her. Rogerson doesn’t start off being abusive – he’s actually very charming and mysterious, wrapping Caitlyn into his world until she’s too in love with him to leave. Caitlyn later fears for her life, which makes it harder to walk away from Rogerson.

Dessen’s complex portrayal of abuse is refreshing to see, since real life abusive relationships are not simple. Just like Macy and Remy, Dessen showcases Caitlyn in a very multi-layered way, and not just a stupid teenage girl who happens to fall in love with an abusive guy. She gives her female protagonists a chance to shine and grow over the course of each novel with interesting backstories, multiple relationships with characters from family and friends to romantic love interests. Sometimes Dessen doesn’t even have a love story in her novels, but whether a novel of hers includes a romance aspect, she always gives her heroines plenty of meat to their character.

Young women should read Dessen’s novels, as they can give a group of people that are stigmatized and stereotyped in derogatory ways a chance to read strong and complex female heroines who don’t necessarily have to be physical fighters like all the female characters being portrayed in books and media today seem to be (Katniss Everdeen, anyone?). Teenage girls can realize that they don’t have to always be portrayed negatively and can hopefully gain their own strength and positive mindset while reading any one of Sarah Dessen’s books.

Megan Schnese, University of Alaska, Anchorage

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Megan Schnese

University of Alaska, Anchorage

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