Just Listen


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Book Review

Just Listen by Sarah Dessen has been reviewed by Focus on the Family’s marriage and parenting magazine.

Plot Summary

Annabel Greene stars in a local television commercial that advertises back-to-school clothes for Kopf’s Department Store. In the commercial, Annabel plays a happy girl with an active social life. In reality, Annabel returns to her high school as an outcast. She has not seen her best friend, Sophie, for three months because they had an argument at the beginning of summer. On the first day of school, none of Annabel’s friends speak to her. At lunch, Annabel is forced to sit alone near Owen Armstrong, an angry loner who nearly always listens to music on his iPod.

After school, Annabel briefly sees Will Cash, an acquaintance who frightened her at the beginning of summer. Will doesn’t seem to recognize Annabel, but her negative reaction to him is so strong that she vomits after seeing him.

Annabel’s home life is stressful because she’s concerned about her older sister Whitney’s anorexia. All three Greene sisters (Kirsten, Whitney and Annabel) have worked as models since childhood, but Whitney has always been the slenderest sister. After high school, Whitney’s modeling career ignited her obsession with being thin. Mr. and Mrs. Greene staged an intervention and placed Whitney in a treatment program for her illness. Whitney currently lives at home with her parents and Annabel so they can monitor her eating habits.

A few days after first sighting Will at school, Annabel exchanges greetings with him. Annabel cannot meet Will’s gaze, and she feels nauseated when she walks away from him. Annabel’s ex-friend Sophie yells at Annabel for speaking to Will, and it becomes clear that Will is Sophie’s boyfriend. Sophie’s thinly veiled insults toward Annabel indicate that she thinks Will and Annabel had sex in June. After Sophie leaves, Annabel vomits again.

Owen comforts Annabel and gives her a ride home from school. Owen and Annabel share a long, thoughtful conversation. Annabel is intrigued by Owen, who is more intelligent than his thuggish reputation suggests.

Owen and Annabel form a friendship at school. Owen encourages Annabel to speak her mind because she doesn’t feel like she can openly discuss any issues that trouble her. Owen and Annabel begin eating lunch together every day, and they frequently discuss the eclectic mix of music Owen plays on his early-morning community radio show.

Whitney begins seeing a new therapist whose unconventional suggestions seem to help Whitney overcome her eating disorder. After saying almost nothing to each other for the past year, Whitney and Annabel begin having discussions. They make dinner together one night, and Annabel realizes how much she has missed her sister. Whitney gradually starts reclaiming her life by working a part-time job and spending some time with her family instead of locking herself away in her bedroom for most of the day.

Annabel has a close friendship with Owen when her bad memories of Will resurface. Annabel’s former friend Emily is rumored to have had sex with Will, but Emily’s haunted facial expression makes Annabel remember her own experience with Will in June. Will sexually assaulted Annabel, but stopped short of actually raping her because Sophie interrupted him. Sophie blamed Annabel for the incident and accused her of seducing Will.

Annabel was so shaken by the assault that she didn’t tell anyone what really happened. She was afraid people would view her differently and pity her if they knew she had been the victim of an attempted rape. Annabel goes on a date with Owen, but abandons Owen at a music club because she feels sick after remembering her horrible night with Will.

For more than a month, Annabel avoids Owen entirely because he wants to know why she has been acting strangely, and she’s not willing to tell him about her past. At school, Annabel hears that Emily has pressed charges against Will, who is going to be tried for second-degree rape. Emily tells Annabel that she knows what happened to Annabel at the beginning of summer, and Annabel’s testimony against Will could help in the upcoming court case. After Emily speaks with her, Annabel begins to cry for the first time since her assault.

By Christmas vacation, Annabel’s sister Whitney is much healthier. Whitney’s success helps Annabel gain the courage to talk to Owen. She tells him about her assault, her problems with Sophie and her problems with her family. Owen says he is sorry for what has happened to her, and he encourages Annabel to add her evidence to the impending trial against Will. Later that night, Annabel tells her parents and sisters about the assault.

The next day, Annabel testifies against Will in court. Will is sentenced to six years in prison. Afterward, Owen meets with Annabel and explains that he has been grounded for punching Will in the face the night before the trial. While Owen is on restriction, Annabel takes over his local radio show and plays songs that are important to her. Annabel is beginning to find her own voice and discover her own preferences. She now feels closer to her parents and sisters, particularly to Whitney, who has made a full recovery and is learning to be a writer. Annabel and Owen have become a happy couple.

Christian Beliefs

When she attempts to make friends with Sophie, Annabel thinks that she is only doing it because her mother wants her to be a good Samaritan.

Other Belief Systems

Owen listens to a recording of Mayan spiritual chants. Owen says he lives for music and calls himself enlightened because of his passion for music.

Authority Roles

Annabel’s mom, Mrs. Greene, is said to be a very polite woman. When Sophie first moved into their neighborhood, Mrs. Greene encouraged her daughters to make friends with Sophie. Annabel says that Mrs. Greene always expects her daughters to take the moral high road, even under difficult circumstances.

Mrs. Greene is averse to conflict, so she doesn’t understand why her two oldest daughters fight so often. Mrs. Greene has difficulty disciplining the girls after these arguments.

When Annabel was 9 years old, Mrs. Greene’s mother died. Mrs. Greene became withdrawn from her daughters. She went through a period of depression, and her daughters took care of the household chores by themselves. During this time, Annabel developed a habit of never telling her mother anything that might upset her. Annabel feels she cannot tell Mrs. Greene about Will’s attempt at raping her, for fear that she might make her mother sad. When Annabel finally tells her parents about the assault, they are supportive.

Initially, Mrs. Greene was eager to accept Whitney’s excuses for her eating disorder, and Mr. Greene also preferred to allow his daughter to continue in her unhealthy habits rather than force her to find help. The Greenes didn’t place Whitney in a treatment program until she fainted at home and they saw how skeletal her body had become.

Annabel’s father, Mr. Greene, works to provide for his family, and he comforts his wife during difficult times. However, Mr. Greene does not want to discuss troubling events with his daughters, and he does not know how to react to his daughters’ emotions. Annabel does not feel she can turn to her father for emotional support because he does not like to deal with hurt feelings. Annabel enjoys watching history programs with her father, who likes to share his television time with her.

Profanity & Violence

God’s name is frequently taken in vain. Profanity includes b–ch, a–, a–hole, s—, h—, d–n and the f-word. Other coarse terms are also used often.

When a boy named Ronnie punches Owen, Owen retaliates with a punch that knocks Ronnie unconscious. Owen is suspended from school for a month because of this violent action. When Owen learns that Will assaulted Annabel, he punches Will and gives him a black eye.

Whitney vomits blood.

Sexual Content

Teen girls wear bikinis while hanging around the local pool. Annabel models swimwear. When Annabel forgets to wear a bra to a modeling meeting, her sister Whitney removes her bra and loans it to Annabel.

Annabel notes that her sister Kirsten is somewhat boy crazy and once arrived at a modeling photo shoot with a hickey so severe that it could not be concealed by makeup.

Annabel is 12 when she has her first kiss with an older teenage boy. Annabel recalls going to a high school party and discovering her friend Sophie kissing Will, who had his hand up Sophie’s shirt. Sophie loses her virginity to Will a few days after they meet. Sophie and Will’s relationship is plagued by rumors that Will is cheating on her with other girls.

Owen kisses Annabel on three occasions. Annabel hears a rumor that her friend Emily has had sex with Will, but later it is revealed that Will has raped Emily. Annabel remembers the night of her own encounter with Will. Will pulled her into a secluded room at a house party and began to assault her. He covered her mouth so she couldn’t scream and pushed his fingers into her vagina. Will pulled off Annabel’s pants and held her against the floor. Sophie walked in on them at that moment.

Discussion Topics

Get free discussion questions for this book and others, at FocusOnTheFamily.com/discuss-books.

Additional Comments

Cigarettes: Will, Sophie, and other teenagers smoke.

Alcohol: Annabel says that her sister Kirsten has not been serious about her modeling career since she developed a fondness for boys and beer in high school. Kirsten has arrived at photo shoots hung over. Kirsten has too many glasses of wine at dinner on the night when she discusses Whitney’s eating disorder with her family. Annabel is only 12 when Sophie convinces her to drink a beer while hanging out with some older boys. Annabel remembers drinking on two occasions at high school parties where the hosts provided a keg of beer.

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Book reviews cover the content, themes and worldviews of fiction books, not their literary merit, and equip parents to decide whether a book is appropriate for their children. The inclusion of a book’s review does not constitute an endorsement by Focus on the Family.

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