Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Book Review: Dreamland

Originally published on May 16, 2012.

Or, a post alternately titled: "A Book Review and a Diatribe."

SIDE NOTE: No, you didn't just miss it--I have not yet posted a review of Book #14 of 2012: Shiver by Maggie Stiefvater. It's the first in a trilogy, so I'm going to post about the entire trilogy all at one time.

Okay, so Dreamland by Sarah Dessen. As usual, I love her writing. And as usual, it's the story of a dysfunctional family, particularly the teenage daughter. But while I usually love Sarah Dessen's books and come out feeling vaguely hopeful and contemplative, this one was like a train wreck: the story was horrifying, but I just couldn't seem to look away.

The story begins on the morning of Caitlin O'Koren's 16th birthday.... the day that her 18-year-old sister, Cass, chooses to run away from home, abandoning her promising future at Yale in favor of running of to New York to live with her boyfriend. Why would Cass, the perfect child, do such a thing? Well, she never explains it herself, but after meeting the parents through Caitlin's narration, it's pretty clear that the father is largely checked-out and the mother's over-involvement with every facet of Cass's life has left her feeling stifled, like she can't make any choices in her own life. Without her sister around, Caitlin isn't quite sure what to do with herself. She basically decides that in order to deal with the pain of Cass leaving, she wants to live her own life as far from Cass's shadow as possible.

This leads to Caitlin dating an enigma named Rogerson (seriously? not a great name for the "bad boy"). Rogerson is nothing that Caitlin's parents or sister would ever approve of--but Cass is gone, and her parents don't seem to notice anything about Caitlin these days. Rogerson is a drug dealer, and soon Caitlin is spending most of her days stoned on pot. She cuts classes to be with him, her grades slip, she gets kicked off the cheerleading squad, alienates herself from her friends, etc.... yet her parents do not seem to notice. And then he starts beating her. Regularly. Until her entire body is a mass of bruises. Yet she never once stands up to him or defends herself, and yep, you guessed it, her parents do not notice whatsoever.

With most YA books that I read, I have no problem getting into the main character's storyline and sympathizing with his/her emotions. In this book, though, I guess I really showed my age, because I could not stop thinking about the mom. I mean, what kind of parent was she? Her daughter went through all of these horrible things right under her nose and she DIDN'T EVEN NOTICE?!?

And then I started thinking about all the kids that I went to high school with who got into drugs, or who had horrible things happen in their relationships, or who were anorexic or cutters or had abortions or any of a million other things.... with, as far as I could see, no fallout from their parents whatsoever. And then I thought about all the kids I used to teach, and of all the drinking parties and drug use and relationships gone bad, and how if the parents knew about it, they sure didn't seem to be reacting at all.

Now, I know that there's a lot that goes on between parents and their children behind closed doors, and maybe many of those parents, both from my own teen years and my teaching years, were more with it than I might have thought. But the fact is, there are so, so many teeangers who get into destructive things or actions or relationships without their parents ever seeming to know or intervene. Which leaves me with the burning question: How do I ensure that I will be a parent who notices? How do I make sure that when my kid faces a crisis, I at least know that something is happening? How do I ensure that the dialogue between me and my children is always so open and honest that they will feel comfortable coming to me with anything, even if they know it will disappoint me?

I think there's more to this than just being just a "good parent." I have known plenty of kids with great, caring, involved parents who have still made bad choices or had bad experiences and have been unwilling to talk to their parents about it. I think that part of it is the "shame" factor, that kids don't want to admit that they might not be able to handle everything alone. And then there's the fear that their parents "won't understand" or will judge them. I mean, let's face it, even the best of kids sometimes find themselves in over their heads--it's part of growing up. So again, how do I, as parent, make myself accessible to my kids in those hard times, to provide support without judgment, to give both gentle guidance and unconditional love?

I don't have the answers here, but I do know that I love my kids more than anything in the world and always want to be there for them, whatever the situation. That I never want them to feel like they "can't talk to" me or that I "won't understand." I imagine that most parents feel that way. So how do we make that a reality?

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