Saturday, June 15, 2013

Coming-of-Age, Not a Romance

Sarah Dessen is a magician with beautiful, clean, innocent, but meaningful romances set in Colby, the calm, beach town that swells during tourist season. With The Moon and More she wrote a different kind of novel. All the components you love are there, but this story is about Emaline and Emaline only. 

Emaline's family runs Colby realty, renting houses for the owners to pushy tourists hungry for some time at the beach. As her last summer before heading to college, Emaline should be hanging out with her boyfriend and friends, enjoying the freedom before she heads off for college. Unfortunately, her sister Margo has recently returned from business school and has taken the opportunity to transform their comfortable family business into a well-oiled machine.  And Emaline's boyfriend Luke has recently been unhappy with the way their relationship is progressing, or rather, not progressing. But when a high roller rents the biggest house in Colby for two months, its occupants are about to change Emaline's life in a way she never would have expected. 

Ivy  and her assistant Theo are making a film about Clyde Conaway, the reclusive Colby native who also happened to be a world-renowned artist at one point. To everyone in Colby he is just Clyde, but to these ambitious New Yorkers he is much more: he is the ticket to fame. When Emaline's boyfriend turns out to not be the guy she thought he was, she finds herself in the arms of Theo, a somewhat dorky film student from New York who is more ambitious that even his boss understands. When Emaline's father (not her dad, but her biological father) comes to town to stay for the first time since getting her mother pregnant at the age of sixteen, she has more than just her romantic life and the rentals to deal with. He was the man who abandoned her mother, ignored her most of her life, and most recently, reneged on his offer to pay for Columbia, forcing her to go to East U in the fall. With her half-brother in tow, he spends the summer in Colby working to sell his aunt's house and adjusting his son to the separation of their family and the inevitability of his parents' divorce. What Emaline didn't expect was to really get to know Benji and to get to know the real man behind the fatherly emails. But even bigger was the opportunity Emaline had in one summer to truly and deeply get to know who She was. 

Dessen usually writes these amazing romance novels, but this book was not a romance novel. Not because you aren't really invested in either Luke or Theo (who is a total tool, but every girl finds herself with a tool at least once in her life, right?!), but because they are not really the focus of the story. Instead, this is a coming of age story for a girl who has always approached life passively and agreeably who finally stands up for herself and goes for what she wants, not what someone else wants for her. I think if you go into this story thinking you are going to find a romance, you will undoubtedly be disappointed. In fact, the jacket blurb talks about Theo as though he is a cool, almost sheik film student who transforms town. Instead, he is a tool. A total tool. He starts off pretty dorky, a guy who never had a girlfriend, never went to prom, was generally miserable in high school. Now this alone doesn't make him a toolbox. I tend to like the dorky guy (brings me back to my love for Duckie, if you must know), but when he become an arrogant, pompous, over-ambitious jerk, I had had enough. And still she stayed with him for most of the novel. This annoyed me at first, but I realized, after a great deal of anger and confusion that I waited for so long for a Dessen romance and got THEO instead, that Emaline needed to date this tool. She dated Luke, not because she was madly in love with him, but because he was comfortable. He embodied all that was Colby, and for a girl who was abandoned by her father, who saw her stepdad as her real dad and his daughter's as her sisters, whose mother was duped and got pregnant in a typical summer romance that faded before she even reached her nine months, she needed her stable, loving family. Theo, on the other hand, was different. It didn't matter that he wasn't a good different (because lord know he wasn't), but just that he was different. But quickly, Emaline realized that she didn't want different. She loved Colby. She didn't want to be "stuck" there for life like so many others, but she didn't want to flee like the other half of its recently graduated population. Instead, she wanted choices while also having her roots. And that was what made me really love this novel.

Instead of your simple romance, this was a complex and emotional coming of age story. Emaline never knew how to define herself, but throughout this story, you watch her finally become comfortable in her own skin and her own desires. Sometimes it takes the exact wrong guy to help you realize what you really want, and Theo was certainly that guy (I can't stress enough how much I disliked him). So, don't go looking for a lovely Dessen romance. You won't find it and you will be disappointed (I know I was at first). But if you go into this thinking you are going to find one of Dessen's more serious novels hidden within a beachy, carefree cover, you will enjoy the book as much as I did. It isn't your typical Dessen, but that is what I love about her the most. She isn't predictable, and neither are her characters. I can't say I loved this story, but I really liked it in more ways than one. But more importantly, I came out the other end of the story loving Dessen more than ever before. 

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