Review: The Moon and More by Sarah Dessen
Sarah Dessen is one of those authors whose books I know I will like before I've read the summary. Just the Dessen name on the cover tells me that I'm in for a good read full of authentic, relatable experiences that are never overwrought or dramatic.
Dessen's latest, The Moon and More, offers exactly that, but with a bit of a fresh flavor, since it heads in a different direction than her books typically do. Despite what the back cover summary may indicate, this is less a summer romance, and more of an introspective journey.
The Moon and More is narrated in first-person by Emaline, who lives in Colby, the fictional North Carolina town that will be familiar to long-time Dessen readers (it's based on Emerald Isle, N.C.). It's the summer before college and despite getting into Columbia, she's headed to a nearby state school, thanks to a full scholarship. She's headed there with longtime boyfriend Luke, who's a fun, crazy about Emaline, fun and comfortable. She helps her mom, dad, grandmother and half sisters run the family's summer home rental business and has a good life in her small town.
Then she meets Theo, who's spending the summer in Colby working on a documentary about a highly-regarded artist from the town. He has big dreams and believes Emaline's been thinking too small regarding her future. Her biological father too thinks that Emaline should be thinking bigger, and lets her know so when he arrives in Colby with her young half brother in tow.
There's a difference between the words father and dad.
See, Emaline's dad and Emaline's father aren't the same people. Emaline's mother had a whirlwind relationship with her father as a teenager. She was a local, he was a wealthy tourist kid from New York. Like most of these relationships, it didn't last. However, she did end up pregnant with Emaline, which sent her life on a different course than she expected, leaving her with few options beyond Colby. Her dad is the man her mother married when Emaline was three; her father is the man she barely had a relationship with until he began to take an interest in her academic achievements.
The Moon and More simply worked for me--the relationships of all kinds explored in this novel just felt real.
Despite that DRAMA! is the name of the game in YA these days, Dessen's books maintain a subtlety that's timeless and relatable. I know for some folks "relatable" is a bad word, but in young adult literature, it can be pretty damn important. Dessen's characters deal with things that most of us tackle at some point in our adolescence: realizing one's parents are fallible; agonizing over the future; realizing that growing up isn't as glamorous as it seemed at 15. It's the little moments that bring clarity or complications and few writers capture that as well as Sarah Dessen.
"I'm a big girl," I told her. "I need to deal with him like one. Which means not having my mom fight my battles for me."
She'd done enough of that to last us both our lifetimes. And in truth, what she'd said in our fight earlier was still resonating with me, even if she'd forgotten. Eighteen years earlier, she'd given up her future for mine. That she'd ever think for a moment this might have been a mistake was enough to make me want to spend every day of it proving otherwise.
In The Moon and More I was most struck by the way parental aspirations and fears got all muddled up with Emaline's. Her mother fears that Emaline's summer fling with Theo, the boy from New York, will result in the exact same scenario that kept her from realizing her dreams. Her father (not her dad) believes that all roads must lead to bigger locales, more culture and a better life. Because Emaline is happy staying near home, he assumes that she doesn't really know what she wants. I've seen this topic addressed in other novels, but it's been in a more blatant, exaggerated manner, and with the exception of Gayle Forman's Just One Day, I can't think of another novel that handles this tension so gracefully. I so appreciated the believable, yet empowered, resolution to this aspect of Emaline's story.
Additionally, Emaline--like so many of Dessen's characters--is "normal" in that she has a job, coworkers and a community.
Especially for older teens, this is a normal "right of passage" and the first time one has an identity somewhat separate from school (though it's obviously more difficult in small towns such as fictional Colby).
Another satisfied customer, I thought, as I walked back to my car. This was why I'd been working pretty much whenever I could lately. I needed distractions, problems I could easily solve. Wild cats were never ideal, but now, I'd gladly take them.
Dessen's books do this so, so well, incorporating side characters that are full of life while further illustrating the protagonist's primary conflict--think Kristy in The Truth About Forever, who is both memorable, but also serves to demonstrate that Macy's commitment to perfection is unrealistic and unobtainable. In this case, Emaline's friends Daisy and Morris play this role quite nicely, and both have compelling, believable and rewarding story arcs over the summer as well.
I guess this review has been less of a "review" and more of a ramble on why Sarah Dessen's novels work for me.
But The Moon and More flew by for me like all of her novels do (it's around 400 pages, but I read it in two sittings). I was sucked into Emaline's world, felt her highs and lows and rooted for her to find a path that worked for her. Fans of Macy-Wes, Annabel-Owen or Auden-Eli pairings may be a smidgen disappointed that The Moon and More doesn't have more romance, but the story is really about Emaline and her family. (Admittedly, after finishing this novel, I found myself thinking I needed to reread one of the wonderful romance-centric Dessens--maybe Along for the Ride, which is set in the same coastal community as this book--this summer.)
While The Moon and More sits near the upper end of the middle of my complicated ranking of Sarah Dessen novels, the setting is by far the best-developed of her 11 books. Colby is effectively a character, playing as important of role in Emaline's life and conflicted feelings about her future as her parents and sisters do. This book also contains one of the more ambiguous, open-ended conclusions in the Dessen oeuvre, something I appreciate more and more as too-tidy endings are in style at the moment. I appreciate that Dessen gives her readers the freedom to imagine what these characters' futures look like.
The Moon and More is out June 4, 2013 and available for preorder now.
Disclosure: Review copy provided by the publisher.