Lock and Key by Sarah Dessen
I hadn’t heard of this best-selling author until a few months ago when Twitter exploded. Apparently, a college group met to decide which books to include in a literature course. One young woman joined the committee with the sole goal of preventing them from selecting Sarah Dessen’s work. Dessen tweeted how hurt she was, not realizing that in doing so she would unleash an attack mob. Dessen’s fans virtually harassed the young woman until she had to change her entire online presence. Dessen later apologized, but ever since then, I’ve been curious about her books, so the other day at the library, I picked up this one.
Ever since her mom abandoned her, Ruby has been living a lie, biding her time alone in the decrepit yellow house until she turns eighteen and can legally live by herself. Her precious independence dissolves when the landlords report her to a social worker. Sent to live with her wealthy sister Cora, who ditched her and her mother ten years ago, Ruby finds herself thrust into a new world: huge house, private school, expensive clothes…maybe even a future in college?
Her new world shifts her perspective of her old world, and Ruby befriends the friendly-to-a-fault popular boy next door, Nate. As their friendship grows, she realizes she isn’t the only one living a lie.
Ruby views the world with typical adolescent skepticism—don’t get close to anyone, don’t get hurt—but she is not so closed that she cannot evaluate her perspective when confronted. She is guarded, yet vulnerable.
Nate is the too-handsome, too-perfect type I usually hate, but Dessen gets away with it by making his inner life far from perfect. The other minor characters each have their quirks. I liked them, though I wouldn’t be me if I didn’t complain that the smart guy is a braces-faced dork. Smart people don’t always need braces and glasses and lessons in social skills.
Okay, stepping off my soapbox now.
This is a character-driven novel. Most of the plot forces Ruby to come to terms with her past. Her decisions are a battle between old Ruby and new Ruby. She makes many mistakes, but uses the lessens learned to form new relationships. These insights allow her to reconcile with her sister and to pick up on what is happening with Nate.
Dessen’s prose is clean and simple, appropriate for the target audience. Her tone is approachable, even though the book takes on multiple difficult topics. To me, Ruby’s “life lessons” felt force-fed to the reader, giving the theme a patronizing air. Perhaps the writing style irked the ill-fated critic. It lacks the intensity and sharpness of, say, Laurie Halse Anderson or Ellen Hopkins. At no point did I pause after reading a sentence to just admire its construction, but neither did I stumble over any grammatical garden paths or misused words.
There are many variations of the cover design. I like them all about the same.
Should this win the Nobel Prize for Literature? No, but I don’t think it’s trying to. Dessen’s prose may not be swoon-worthy, but its easy-on-the-brain style makes it perfect for curling up on the couch and escaping for a couple hours. Her characters are quirky, yet relatable. The topic is serious, yet approachable, and the themes are universal. All in all, I am grateful to the critic for bringing this author to my attention. I will happily read another book by her.
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