Dreamland, by Sarah Dessen

TRIGGER WARNING: This review contains mention of abuse. You have been warned.

This will probably be the last Sarah Dessen book I’ll ever review. Not only do I barely have anything to say about her other books, but also because of some problematic behavior she’s shown in recent years.

In 2019, Ms. Dessen uncovered a 2016 college article where a young student reporter said she disagreed with Ms. Dessen’s books being on some prestigious curriculum list. Ms. Dessen took to Twitter and complained that her books were better than what this cruel, nasty reporter said. Afterward, a lot of Ms. Dessen’s author friends, who had just as big if not bigger platforms, found this reporter and harassed her online until she pretty much disappeared from the Internet.

In other words, Ms. Dessen found out that some nobody article was talking shit about her work, amidst the millions of praise tweets I’m sure she gets every year, and then she and her minions pounced. (And what exactly was she doing in 2019 searching for a tiny 2016 article about her? Just goes to show that reviews are for readers, not for authors).

In time, Ms. Dessen and several other of her harasser friends apologized to the student reporter, but it was almost too little too late. Because some people can’t be bothered to do their own research before hitting the Retweet button or threatening some poor girl online over an article with a teeny-tiny sphere of influence.

And some people wonder why I pretty much abandoned Twitter.

Caitlin O’Koren is in shock over the sudden disappearance of her older sister Cass. Amidst the chaos of trying to find Cass, Caitlin meets Rogerson Biscoe, a mysterious classmate who introduces good girl Caitlin to a world of drugs and sex. The deeper their relationship becomes, the more layers peel back until Caitlin finds herself with bruises and an increasing, panicked desire to please Rogerson at all costs.

Goodness, I’m going to have a really hard time separating the art from the whiny artist, but I’ll do my best.

First, the good.

The story, like all Sarah Dessen’s works, keeps moving, with an abundance of symbolism. It’s predictable in its young adult preachiness, which, if you’re in the mood, works fine.

You do feel sorry for Caitlin, who feels trapped by the expectations of her cookie-cutter suburbia parents in their cookie-cutter house, and especially when she gets into the thick of abuse from Rogerson. And the progression of abuse is palpable and executed okay. It’s hard to forget that the first time Rogerson hits Caitlin is also the first time he also tells her he loves her, and Caitlin not knowing which version of Rogerson she’ll get is effective. 

And now, the stuff you’ve been waiting for.

Caitlin and Rogerson’s relationship sparked a little too fast. It’s written in a very dramatic way, which feels weird given how the relationship progresses. Maybe if Caitlin passed him casually a few times before sparks flamed between them, it would feel more believable. It’s just strange how they barely know each other for two minutes, and Caitlin decides to take a ride with him and lean into him when he touches her knee.

Like, girl, that’s something you do with a guy you know and trust, not some hunky stranger you meet at the car wash.

I simply could not understand why Caitlin was drawn to Rogerson. We don’t know much about him except that he has a knack for trivia and he much prefers heavy rock music, which clashes heavily with Caitlin’s tastes. I guess that Caitlin is looking for a distraction from her missing sister, but Rogerson should have made a much greater impression on me so I could buy Caitlin’s connection to him.

At one point, Caitlin witnesses Rogerson’s father beat him, and she comforts him after. She then makes a grand declaration that she has edged her way past Rogerson’s defenses to see the real him. Only she didn’t! She just happened to be there when his dad beat him up, so she did nothing special.

Why does Caitlin think the sun shines out of Rogerson’s ass when he has done absolutely nothing special or even good for her? He’s moody, demanding, and hard to please, and yet she cannot wait to be with him. She says over and over how she loved him, even after the abuse ended, and I just wonder why? How?

Perhaps I’m not interpreting this correctly, and this is a typical thought process of someone being groomed for abuse. Either way, it made Caitlin seem naive and gullible. She saw a knight in shining armor, and I saw an off-putting creep. 

Just a side note, but there are also some peculiar adults in this book. Caitlin’s neighbor and family friend mentions an art teacher who believes that coed massage is a great way to release creative energy. And then, Caitlin’s photography teacher stops her in the art center lobby so he can compliment her work and squeeze her hand before leaving. Granted, the latter example leads to a grisly encounter with Rogerson, but still, it was pretty weird, and I’m sure Rogerson would have misinterpreted the interaction even without the hand squeeze. 

I knew this would be a hard book to review because this is a decent story; it’s just that the writer got too big for her britches and threw a public hissy fit at some random, if small, negative press. As a story of abuse, Dreamland works all right, but it feels almost manipulative in its perfectly-wrapped ending and overexplained symbolism. Plus, when the writer and her goonies drive some poor girl off the Internet for, again, small negative press, it’s hard to rate the book high. 

I’ve said before that Sarah Dessen books will not frequent this blog much, but she likely never will again. There’s no room in my library for authors who throw public hissy fits over one bad review and harass people into oblivion.

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