As in The Sky Is Everwhere by Jandy Nelson, we begin with a girl living in the shadow of her perfect older sister. In this case, however, the older sister isn't dead, merely gone, run away to who knows where. Caitlin has always used her sister as a bit of an excuse not to excel or be special, knowing she could not measure up, and, without Cass around, Caitlin doesn't have any clue who to be.
In the absence of Cass, Caitlin's overprotective mother switches her focus to the remaining daughter. When Cass makes the cheerleading team, having been pressed to audition by her steamrolling best friend, Rina, her mother gets involved the same way she always did for Rina. Nothing cheers Caitlin, though. She both misses Cass and relishes the idea that now maybe she will shine for a change, but has no idea how to do that. The reader can feel Caitlin's lack of direction and disconnection from the world.
In her continuing search to be her own person and do things Cass never did, Caitlin begins dating a bad boy. Now, you know all those popular books these days about heroines dating bad boys with hearts of gold, who make their girlfriends into better people? This is NOT one of those. Rogerson Biscoe most definitely is a bad boy. He deals drugs, bosses Caitlin around, and completely monopolizes her life. Dessen shows the attraction such a boy possesses, while also conveying a definite message. The portrayal of their relationship is realistic and utterly horrifying. Rather than helping her become her own person, Rogerson lets her live for him instead; Caitlin remains a shell of a person.
What Left Me Wanting More:
Much as I love Dessen's writing, I do not feel this is one of her best novels. For one thing, I think the messages might have gone down better with a little bit more breadth of emotion. Pretty much the only feelings I got from this were sadness and hopelessness. Dark fiction works best with some other emotions juxtaposed to really set off the tragedy of the situation and to make everything feel more real.
Also, I had a really hard time accepting that her family, her neighbors, and Rina all failed to notice her downward spiral. The girl was stoned all of the time, constantly at the beck and call of her boyfriend, lost weight, and was doing perpetually worse in class, among other things. Her mother may have been busy trying to get Cass back, but I think she would still have noticed something. Rina seemed mostly to forget about Caitlin for much of the novel. These reactions just did not seem true to the characters.
The Final Verdict:
Sarah Dessen's Dreamland is an unrelentingly dark story of a girl struggling to find her own identity. If you are tired of all of the romanticized bad boys, this story will appease.