This was one of those books where my reactions to it fell mostly in the extremes, and there are going to be SPOILERS so I can talk about freely about the missteps.
I was immediately drawn in by Annabel and the obvious tension in her. She had been recently ostracized by her former best friend, popular mean girl Sophie, and her life at home is also fragile, between a sister currently recovering from an eating disorder and a mother who has a history of depression. Annabel has become accustomed to just not saying what she’s feeling, because she doesn’t want to hurt anyone, and eventually that caution for the sake of others becomes a genuine anxiety of actually being able to express herself. Uber-passive protagonists like this are, admittedly, really difficult for me to read, but in Dessen’s hands, Annabel comes across less as an underdeveloped drip than as a normal teen whose particular combination of experiences has made her extra emotionally withdrawn. I also have to remember not to project my slightly more adult sensibilities onto teen characters, and Dessen makes that easier, because her characters actually talk and think like teenagers do, and not like eloquently enhanced versions of themselves. Basically, during the whole initial set-up, including the flashback sections that establish the reasons for Annabel’s reticence, I was strongly on board.
Annabel obviously has a big secret. It’s not too hard to guess what led to the falling-out between her and Sophie. Sophie’s public accusation is that Annabel made a pass at Sophie’s boyfriend, but Annabel’s silent paralysis about the night in question suggests another version of the story entirely — although sexual assault isn’t confirmed until the very end. It’s not until she slowly strikes up a friendship with fellow outcast Owen that she starts becoming more comfortable with speaking her mind, although that biggest secret is still the hardest thing to share. I’ll be honest: I had a lot of problems with the relationship between Annabel and Owen. This was my first major negative reaction to the book.
First of all, Owen is one of those guys who is only into, like, the most obscure possible music, that’s not even really music with a traditional song structure, but is more likely to be super avant garde, a bunch of sounds. He’s one of those guys that unironically believes that most people “just don’t understand” good music, and he’s one of the few who is “enlightened,” based on his tolerance for weird stuff and complete obsession with only listening to artists who haven’t sold out. Owen is so over the top obnoxious that it’s almost like Dessen is poking a little bit of fun at this type of person, but that kind of irony would be so out of place in this story that I can’t really believe that’s the case.
More importantly though, Owen’s backstory is basically that he’s been successfully managing anger issues, so he comes to the table with a lot of psychobabble and general armchair psychiatry that he uses to basically browbeat Annabel into “being honest” and to “tell him things.” And, like, to service the plot and get closure, it’s important that Annabel learn how to do those things, but it’s super presumptuous that it needs to be him, and not her family, or a few other female characters (whose relationship with Annabel would really benefit from certain information) that deserves to hear her secrets. To really put a point on it, I was just incredibly uncomfortable, nay, angry even, with the dynamic that a sexual assault survivor, whose sexual assault was predicated on a boy not listening to her say “no,” was being forced by another boy to tell him her story because if she was withholding information she was “lying to him.” No joke, there was this whole confrontation where Owen was pissed off at Annabel, because she had essentially been recently triggered, and was unable to really deal with this date she and Owen were supposed to be on at a rock show, so she leaves. The confrontation becomes centered around Owen’s anger and hurt feelings that Annabel “left him,” but for all of his lip service about being open and honest, he barely even lets Annabel speak, interrupting her every time she starts to try to explain herself. It’s jarring, particularly because Dessen’s narrative position on Owen, through Annabel’s perspective, is that he’s a great listener, and the “one person” who sees deep inside her to know what’s going on, and this scene just does not jibe with that at all. You don’t get to be the most perceptive person on earth, the only one with the key that unlocks the protagonist’s most inner secrets, and be so completely oblivious to how your emotional outburst and finger-pointing are literally the exact reasons why she chooses not to share herself with people. Furthermore, with so little attention paid in the scene to her clear discomfort, it strikes me as highly unrealistic that the first person an assault survivor would choose to tell about their harrowing experience is someone who is actively trying to control the way that they speak about their experiences and feelings, who berates them for using imprecise language, and who shames them for not being open and revealing enough. Like, take ALL OF THE SEATS, Owen.
The other thing that I found incredibly odd was the lack of catharsis in the book. The pacing was really off toward the end, and it made the climax rather stale and ineffective. After so much time — chapters upon chapters — paid to Annabel’s anxiety about speaking her mind, when she finally does, it’s so perfunctory that it’s frustrating. It basically goes like this: “I decided to tell Owen everything. When I was finished, he said he was sorry, and that made me feel great, so I realized I could go home and tell my family everything. Then when I did that, I called the lawyer lady about sexual assault charges. CUT TO NEXT DAY, where I’m on the stand testifying. Whew! Isn’t the truth freeing!”
Imagine a whole book inside the mind of a girl who is patently uncomfortable with her feelings, who walks on eggshells around everyone, who has been openly hated by her former best friend, and ostracized by her entire class. On top of that, she’s also locked into modeling obligations that she has no interest in, because she feels beholden to the delicate emotional state of her mother, who loves managing Annabel’s small career and who might collapse without that thing to keep her busy. In short, Annabel feels trapped by what happened to her, and what others think and expect from her. For her conversations with the various people who were instrumental in this state of being (or complete non-conversations, as is the case with Sophie, who basically disappears from the book when she’s done being the principal antagonist) to basically be fade-to-black, deprives the reader of much-needed relief, particularly since this IS a “happy ending” book.
I’m overall quite surprised by how much my feelings declined as I got toward the end of Just Listen. I feel like it showcases Sarah Dessen’s aptitude for writing young adults, as well as her emotional intelligence in creating characters and situations that resonate with readers. But there were too many sour notes here for me to have an overall positive feeling about the book, which is a shame.