Dreamland by Sarah Dessen


As the book begins, older sister Cassandra simply disappears. On the eve of her departure to attend Yale, her parents’ ideal college, she vanishes without a word of explanation, simply saying “I’m OK. Don’t worry about me, but I won’t be communicating with you.” Needless to say, this ruins Caitlin’s birthday in a very real way–no emo angst here.

The family is distraught–father immerses himself in work, mother in searching for daughter, and younger sister lost in a fog hoping to see her sister in dreams. Their only clue is that Cassandra’s boyfriend works for a reality talk show–the kind that ends up with people throwing punches about one time in three–and it’s possible that Cassandra has gotten a job on the show’s staff.

As the family searches for Cassandra, and waits for word from her, Caitlin desperately tries to become the wonder that was her older sister, academically, socially and athletically. Until she falls in with Rogerson Biscoe. Photography has provided Caitlin both a release from and a protective layer against the heartbreak of her sister’s disappearance–seeing through the camera’s lens leaves reality at one remove. Hr relationship with Rogerson provides other buffers at first his love and then drug use. These combined draw her away from her cheerleading practice, with little real reluctance as this was something she did only as an attempt to replace Cassandra.

Caitlin’s relationship with Rogerson at first seems a source of strength for her but spirals downward as he draws her into complicity with his drug dealing (largely marijuana but suggestions of harder drugs) and begins to abuse her, mentally and physically. He uses all the textbook methods of control–insisting she be scrupulously punctual in the beginning, then moving on to demanding explanations for being late and then to physical abuse. This last isn’t too bad in winter, as Caitlin can simply wear long clothes to cover the bruises, but as spring comes around and the garden party her family does each year with it, her parents finally realize what has been going on.

Be prepared: there is drug use, primarily marijuana smoking, in the book. In fairness, Dessen does a pretty good job showing (not telling!) why using is a singularly stupid idea while avoiding preaching. Rogerson’s abuse and control of Caitlin may be triggering for people who’ve gone through this themselves.

Clearly others like Sarah Dessen’s work a great deal; this one seems to be one of her weaker ones? The dream element might have been left out, though it might serve as a metaphor for Caitlin’s retreat from the world she’s known into drug use. Without that, it’s a much simpler and more straightforward tale of an older sister who runs away from her family’s expectations and a younger sister who’s left behind to fill in the shoes of someone she perceives as perfect. Overall, I’d call it a “lesson” novel–one that works to put across a specific message–rather than a straight novel. Nothing wrong with that, but they can be a bit awkwardly written in the hands of a merely very skilled writer.

What to read next? I’m not quite sure. Go Ask Alice springs to mind, as another anti-drug book. And You Give Me a Pain, Elaine might be good for readers who didn’t care for the abuse and drug use, but liked the idea of a family struggling to hold together after the disappearance of the “perfect” older child.

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