For years, Ruby and her mother moved from apartment to apartment. They lived in random places and cramped spaces above other people's garages. Finally, they find a little yellow house to rent. Ruby's mother, preferring to drown her sorrows in alcohol than deal with them head-on, made her daughter give her excuses to visitors, landlords, and bosses.
The older Ruby got, the more her mother depended on her - and on substances. Ruby became used to her mom disappearing for a few days now and then. When a week turned into two, then three, then a month, Ruby knew her mom wasn't coming back. She went to work and school and lived alone for months before her landlords realized what was going on.
With Ruby seven months away from her eighteenth birthday, child services stepped in. She is sent to live with her older sister, who hasn't seen her in ten years. Cora left for college and, according to their mother, never looked back. Now Cora has a successful career, a husband who is equally successful, and a gorgeous home, with a spunky little dog to boot. How can Ruby fit into this household, let alone into a new school that's posh and private? She's so sure that this could never be her home, her life, that she prepares to run away that very first night and go back to the little yellow house. Fate has other plans for her, and so does Nate, the boy next door.
Though Ruby consents to stay put for the time being, she keeps the key to the little yellow house on a chain around her neck. At first, the key is the only thing she permits to fall close to her heart, interpreting her sister's clipped responses as lack of interest. She is unsure how to take her perpetually upbeat brother-in-law, Jamie. How can this complete stranger welcome her with open arms?
Nate also reaches out to her. Whether she likes the attention or not, he means well. He's genuine, and she's not used to that. Carpooling with him to and from school gives her insight into this grinning, popular boy. There's more there than meets the eye. Though he's friendly, not flirtatious, she's hesitant to open up to him. She'd rather keep her heart under lock and key than risk getting hurt again.
Ruby is a strong girl, but she's not a saint. She has done plenty of things she's not proud of, and she has a stubborn streak a mile wide. She is determined to do things on her own and her refuses to let others assist her because she doesn't want to "owe" them anything.
Ruby's constantly tempted to leave, to make things easier for everyone, herself included. The easy way out is never as easy as it seems. It just leads her back to bad things, bad people. The road back to her sister's house is promising, but there are bumps along the way. Ruby's new school is far ahead of her previous school, and she struggles to keep up her grades. She has to write a report about "family" for class, and she doesn't know where to begin. Jamie tries to be helpful while Cora remains distant. Nate keeps reaching out, and Ruby repeatedly deflects his concern until she realizes that he may need some help too.
There are plenty of supporting characters in Ruby's new world. Roscoe, the dog, provides comic relief as well as unconditional love right from the start. Gervais, a kid who skipped multiple grades in school, rides in her carpool with Nate. There's Harriet, the high-strung jewelry designer with a mall kiosk who gets inspiration from an unexpected place, and Olivia, her talkative classmate who isn't afraid to tell it like it is. Nate's father seems pleasant and polished, but a scratch on that surface lets his true colors shine through. Ruby's old friends factor in as well, clashing loudly with her new life.
With Lock and Key, Sarah Dessen has created something extremely poignant - which is not to say that she hasn't before. All of Dessen's novels are extremely readable and enjoyable, and each is distinctive. The narrative of Lock and Key, which is told in first person from Ruby's point of view, infuses past events with the present day. Things that occurred a year ago, three months ago, or even earlier the same day are revealed when they relate to happenings in the current time frame. This storytelling method fits the feel of the story, allowing it to move forward as Ruby lives day by day but still clings to her past.
Ruby doesn't think of herself as lost, but she is - and she deserves to be found. Pick up Lock and Key by Sarah Dessen and give it a home on your bookshelf.
"And the rest is history," I said.
"Nah." He shook his head. "The rest is now."
Read an excerpt of Lock and Key.
Related Posts: Author Spotlight: Sarah Dessen and Interview: Sarah Dessen