Sarah Dessen's latest novel, The Moon and More, invites readers to spend the summer between high school and college with a young woman named Emaline. How wonderful it is to have a protagonist who equally appreciates where she's come from as where she's going, who acknowledges her roots even as she learns to spread her wings.
Emaline has always been close to her mother, but not to her father. Her mom got pregnant when she was a junior in high school, and her father, who had been visiting the beach town of Colby that summer with his family, drifted away. But Emaline does have a dad: the cool construction-crazy fellow Emaline's mom married when she was three. He was a widow with two girls of his own, just two and four years older than Emaline, and they became a family. He adopted Emaline, and she considers him her dad, no question about it.
Meanwhile, her father, who has been in touch via email since she was ten, visits occasionally with his wife and little boy, and was actively invested in her college application process, has inexplicably didn't attend her high school graduation and has stopped corresponding with her.
Emaline's family on her mother's side has owned Colby Realty for over fifty years. Now all of the girls work there: her grandmother, her mother, and her two sisters, though business-minded (and shall we say often uptight) college graduate Margo does approximately ten times more work than Amber, who "was in hair school, worked for the realty company under duress, and expressed her annoyance by doing everything in as slipshod a way as possible." (page 4) One of many things I love and appreciate about Sarah Dessen's writing is that she makes each character distinct without ever being a stereotype or a caricature; though the grandmother and Amber are more peripheral to the central story than the other ladies, they are just as real, their personalities and habits just as clear as the others. If this book becomes a movie, the woman cast as the grandma better be prepared to eat a lot of Rolo candies, and Amber's hair will be a different color in every scene.
When Emaline's father reappears in her life, back in town to settle the affairs related to his great-aunt's house, he brings along Emaline's half-brother Benji. This ten-year-old bundle of energy and efficiency is a surprisingly welcome addition to her life and to her workplace. He eagerly assists her with check-in duties and loves spending time with her, be it playing mini-golf or going to the arcade or just hanging out. As an only child with two parents, he's had a totally different upbringing than she has; and now his parents are divorcing, something Emaline is informed of way before he is, making her even more protective of this sweet little kid.
Then there are the other kids, the ones who aren't feeling much like kids anymore as they teeter between being teenagers and adults. Emaline is tackling that transition period head-on, really considering it without either being naive (or ignorant) or waxing too poetic about it. A smart, hardworking girl, she got into Columbia - but without her father's financial support, she had to turn it down and go with the closer, more affordable East U. Emaline's boyfriend, Luke, who she has been dating since they were in ninth grade, will also be going to East U. Things have been going pretty well for them for a while, but this summer's events push them to the breaking point. Emaline's best sounding boards are her closest pals, Daisy, who is creative, fashionable, and always pursuing artistic endeavors*, and Morris, who is laid-back to the point he can appear to be unmotivated. Though not the best employee, Morris is extremely loyal, and it was wonderful to see a close friendship between a boy and a girl that was completely platonic, in no way romantic, with a wonderful dynamic created by their different personalities and rhythms. It was also excellent to have more than one character who worked at a family-owned business, and to see people who had multiple jobs to make ends meet.
*Scenes with Daisy are simply great, whether she's creating a window display in a local store or completely transforming vintage dresses into something that better fits her. I think Claudia Kishi from The Baby-Sitters Club would consider Daisy to be a kindred spirit.
Through work, Emaline connects quickly to Theo, a twenty-one-year-old guy who is in town acting as an assistant to Ivy, an overly demanding documentary filmmaker who is determined to interview a quiet middle-aged artist who has been living under the radar in Colby. Without giving too much away, I was very impressed that Dessen didn't make Theo either the polar opposite to Luke nor the Best (or Worst) Guy Ever. This story for sure has romance in it, but that's only one part of Emaline's life, only one part of her story.
Three cheers for good bildungsromans featuring protagonists who have more than one storyline, more than one goal, with loyalties and responsibilities to different people and different things - because don't we all? Young adults are truly that, young adults, people who are trying to come to terms with what it means to be an adult, facing obligations and responsibilities as well as desires and impulses. Filled with the swells of the ocean, the heart of this particularly effective coming-of-age story pulses steadily as Emaline's first-person narrative expresses her thoughts:
In Colby I'd found that people either wanted to stay forever (and usually did) or couldn't wait to get gone and never look back (ditto). For me, however, it was a mix of the two, the constant push and pull. I loved it here. But I'd been to that circle and star for my entire life, and I so wanted to know what it would feel like to claim another distant spot as my own, if only for a little while. Someday. - Page 78
As someone who is deeply aware of perspectives and perception, I really liked this line:
You think it's all obvious and straightforward, this world. But really, it's all in who is doing the looking. - Page 266
Sarah Dessen's novels are connected, but usually in a subtle way, with gentle references to characters who were featured in previous novels. If you want to find out who is mentioned in The Moon and More, you'll have to read the book. I'll give you a few hints: food might be consumed at a certain restaurant, and bikes might be rented from a familiar establishment.
A personal note: I read this entire novel in pretty much one sitting while on a movie set, happily and patiently waiting for my scenes to be filmed. It just so happens that it was ten years ago this week that How to Deal, a film based on two of Sarah Dessen's novels, was released in theatres. Happy anniversary, Sarah!
If you liked The Moon and More and would like to read more novels set the summer between high school and college, check out my Transition Times booklist.
To read my reviews of all of Sarah Dessen's novels to date, check out my Author Spotlight: Sarah Dessen.