The other day I overheard two women, presumably mothers of teenage malcontents, complaining about the "excessive" amount of "doom and gloom" found in today's young adult literature. Having just finished DREAMLAND, Sarah Dessen's latest novel, I felt like shouting, "Who the hell wants to read about a bunch of kids who are always happy, who have it all and whose lives are just great? We don't need literature painting pretty pictures of confident, beautiful girls and sweet, adorable boys; we have television for that!" An emotionally exhausting story about a teenage girl whose problems (and I use this word with complete understatement) multiply exponentially as the pages turn, there are few, if any, pretty pictures to be found in DREAMLAND. It's the kind of book the two women would deem "doomy and gloomy" and not pass on to their teens, which would be really unfortunate because Dessen has written a compelling and thoughtful book that offers a realistic, yet moralistic-free look into the search for self-identity.
On the morning of her 16th birthday Caitlin O'Koren wakes up to find that her older sister, Cass, has runaway with her boyfriend. Having spent her whole life in the shadow of her beautiful and brilliant sister, Caitlin suddenly finds herself thrust from the familiar darkness of invisibility into the glaring light of public and parental scrutiny. She has no choice but to forge a new identity, metamorphose into someone other than Cass's perfectly average little sister. The question, of course, is how.
Enter Rogerson: the dreamy-eyed, wild-haired, BMW driving, pot-smoking bad-boy who makes all the girls swoon and leaves Caitlin reeling from his indescribably sexy aloofness. Has Dessen created the stereotypical love interest? Absolutely. Has nearly every girl since the beginning of time had a crush on a guy like this at some point in her life? Pretty much. However, beyond the immediate and intense physical attraction there lies a more complicated reason for her piqued interest. In him she sees an opportunity to reinvent herself.
"I saw myself, then, setting out across uncharted territory, places Cass had never been or seen or even heard of. My world was suddenly wide and limitless, as vast as the sky and stars I'd been dazzled by earlier, and it all started there with the door he was holding open for me."
From that moment on, Caitlin and Rogerson are utterly inseparable. It's an exciting time, full of new friends, strange places, first experiences, and new love. (Dessen does an excellent job of capturing the incomparable feeling of first love, that time in your life when a day spent watching him fix his car seems like a really well spent day.) Rogerson's dangerous lifestyle is intoxicating, and Caitlin soon finds herself drinking in his wildness and "filling up the empty spaces all those second-place finishes had left behind."
The very second Rogerson's fist makes contact with Caitlin's jaw for the first time, her once perfect dream-world comes crashing down, giving way to a very real nightmare. The beatings continue, become more frequent and intensely violent, but Caitlin never tells a soul or reaches out for help. She has become addicted to the way Rogerson makes her feel like someone other than a "little-sister, pretty girl's sidekick, or second runner-up." How does she cope? With drugs to numb the pain and turtlenecks to hide the hurt. In the wake of Rogerson's wrath, invisibility is the one thing Caitlin desperately desires --- ironically, back when she was living in Cass's shadow, invisibility was the one thing she most feared.
Why is it so difficult for some girls to extricate themselves from abusive relationships? It's a question that has long plagued modern society, a question that Sarah Dessen, with the same characteristic sensitivity and insight that garnered her praise for KEEPING THE MOON (1999), takes up in DREAMLAND. Her theory? If your not sure of who your Self is, then how can you preserve and protect It? She makes it so simple it's complicated.
---Reviewed by Sarah Brennan
Reviewed by Sarah Brennan on October 18, 2011
- Publication Date: September 1, 2000
- Hardcover: 256 pages
- Publisher: Viking
- ISBN-10: 0670891223
- ISBN-13: 9780670891221