The Plot: It’s the summer after high school graduation, and everything in Emaline’s life is the same as it ever was. She’s working at her grandmother’s beach rental property business. She’s hanging out with Luke, her boyfriend since ninth grade. Even the arguments with her older sisters are familiar, even if they are about new things. Things in the beach town of Colby are always a certain way, and that’s how it’s always been and always will be.
Or will it? Emaline feels an edge of something, she’s not quite sure what. Dissatisfaction? Yearning? Wanting a change? And the knowledge that when summer ends, she’s going off to college (one of the first in her family to do so), doesn’t help. It’s East U, the same place her oldest sister went, the same place most of her classmates will go, so how will her life be anything different than it is now?
Emaline meets Theo, the assistant to documentary director Ivy, two New Yorkers in Colby for the summer to make a documentary about a local man who, years before, left Colby, became a well regarded artist, and then turned his back on it all to go back to the small beach town. Seeing herself, her town, through their eyes: what is it, really, that Emaline wants? To stay or go? What life does she want?
The Good: The main difficulty I had with writing about The Moon and More is that it’s not a simple book. It’s not so much about Emaline’s “coming of age” (whatever that means) as Emaline being on the cusp of something and not knowing what it is; it’s about Emaline not looking for answers because she is still trying to figure out the questions.
Emaline’s roots in Colby run deep. She works for Colby Realty in the summer, just like her mother and her sister Margo. Everyone knows the story of her mother and Emaline: how, while still in school, younger than Emaline is now, Emily fell in love with one of the tourists, one of the summer people who are down for a season, and ended up pregnant and alone and left. No, this isn’t that sort of book: Emily had a child to take care of and she got her act together and married a man from Colby with roots of his own, a widower with two young girls who adopted Emaline and has been as much a father to her as his own girls. It’s a blended family that is happy and loving and, yes, sometimes they fight because that’s what families do. One of the big things I loved about The Moon and More was Emaline’s family.
Another thing I loved? The portrait of a beach community, with the locals being mostly working class and the tourists being mostly rich. Emaline has always known better than to get involved with a tourist — look what happened to her mother. She sees it also in classmates, who date a boy in the summer and then the gradual disintegration of the relationship once summer ends. Yet, despite that, despite Luke, she finds herself drawn to Theo. He’s not like the local boys and she yearns, in a way, for that which is different from the life she knows. The tension that any about-to-leave-for-college teenager feels that summer before college is played out on a slightly bigger canvas, because of the tensions that exist between the locals and the tourists. What does it mean to be from someplace? What does it mean to want to leave? And can one really leave?
Another strength is Emaline’s friendships: her two best friends, Daisy and Morris, and Luke, her boyfriend. And this is the moment where I get a bit spoilerish — no, a lot spoilerish.
Here’s the thing: The Moon and More is classic Dessen, creating a girl so real the reader knows Emaline’s strengths and weaknesses and loves her anyway. Emaline has to learn a thing or two or three about people in this summer’s journey, and that I saw some truths before she did? Well, sometimes we all have things we have to learn the hard way.
So, stop reading now, if you don’t want a bit of an analysis on just why The Moon and More is, I think, one of Dessen’s best books.
First, it’s not a romance. Oh, there is a romance in it — Emaline and Luke break up and Emaline starts dating Theo. But, this is not a romance. I felt none of the “wowza” I’ve felt with past Dessen boys. Luke felt, well, like a familiar sweater, something nice enough and reliable enough but no spark. And Theo: Theo is a boy pretending to be a man, and what better way for an insecure out of towner to feel smarter and brighter than to date someone a few years younger? Emaline does not know this, as she drinks red wine because Theo likes it and goes to the restaurants Theo likes. Emaline has to figure it out for herself. Figuring it out, though? That’s part of the point of The Moon and More and it’s watching Emaline realize this that makes this book bittersweet.
The other point of The Moon and More is watching Emaline work out her relationship with her birth father (as opposed to her Dad, the man who raised her). Who her father is, who he wishes he were, who Emaline wishes he were, is as complicated and messy as you would expect it to be. I love that here, with Emaline’s father, Dessen gave no simple answers, no easy reunions, no miraculous changes of heart. Just, flawed people with weaknesses who do the best they can and make the best of what they have.
Usually I’m pretty good at thinking of the teen audience and intended audience when I read a book. Here, for example: reading it and loving it as a teen reader would; also thinking, hey, this may work for those readers wanting “New Adult,” whatever that is; but sometimes I cannot turn off my “but I’m an adult reading this” brain. Here, it means, I think, that I figured out certain truths about Theo and about Emaline’s father before she did. I wonder if teen readers will be following Emaline’s journey more than I was able to , or if it’s part of the intended reader experience to know things before Emaline. Also, to be honest — I find myself curious about Emaline’s mother, and her choices, and find myself, for the first time, wishing Sarah Dessen would consider writing a book or two for the grownups. Dessen does a great job of painting nuanced, flawed parents without making them “evil” and I wish there would be a book just about those grownups. Selfish, I know.
And of course — it’s a Favorite Book Read in 2013.