In terms of contemporary YA, there are few authors more beloved than Sarah Dessen. Dessen is so popular that her name has become something of an adjective, used to describe a certain style of YA book, whether it was actually written by Dessen or not. The books tend to follow a similar formula: there’s a teenage girl (often with an unusual name) who is in the midst of dealing with some kind of emotional situation, usually related to family issues, and a cute boy (also with an unusual name) comes along while the girl gradually figures stuff out.
It’s vague, yes, but it’s actually really effective – regardless of the specifics, these stories aren’t so much about plot trajectory or things happening, they’re about character development and getting to know a character during an important time in their life. Dessen’s leading ladies tend to be smart, thoughtful girls with engaging narrative voices, so no matter what exactly is happening to them, they’re interesting to read about and their stories are touching.
In Dessen’s latest novel, The Moon and More, our heroine is Emaline, who is spending the summer before she starts college working for her family’s realty company in the small beach town of Colby (which will be very familiar to Dessen fans). Emaline grew up with her mom, a non-biological dad who adopted her when she was three, and two half sisters. Over the summer, Emaline’s biological father and his 10-year-old son come into the picture when they are brought to Colby to handle selling a deceased relative’s beach house. Emaline is also distracted from her longtime boyfriend by a new big city guy, Theo, who is working on a documentary about a local artist.
Emaline struggles to divide her final summer between all the people she loves. She harbors bitter feelings toward her biological father, she’s confused about her significant other situation, and she’s trying to figure out a way to balance her small town upbringing with her grander ambitions. And, unfortunately, I didn’t find Emaline or her summer particularly riveting, which was actually really disappointing for me since I wanted so badly to love this book.
Don’t get me wrong, Sarah Dessen is a good writer and the fact that she’s able to keep me entertained when very little is happening is really pretty commendable. It’s hard to pin down exactly why The Moon and More was such a letdown for me compared to Dessen’s previous books. Partially it comes down to Emaline – she was unusually bland for a Dessen character; she didn’t really have a unique voice and nothing about how she was portrayed made me want to root for her. I didn’t dislike her; I just didn’t really care one way or another. On top of that, the progression of the story and character development was weird – I got the impression I was supposed to feel like I had spent all summer with Emaline as she had these important experiences and personal growth, but by the end of the book I felt like nothing had happened and I didn’t really feel any closer to Emaline.
There was also the problem of manipulation. Sure, manipulation can be an important tool for an author – in this case, readers are meant to feel like they are experiencing the events along with Emaline, from her perspective, without any outside influence or sense of knowing the outcome. Unfortunately the outcome is very transparent from the onset of the story, so the fact that the reader is purposely shielded from certain insights so they can stay in Emaline’s head just makes the entire exercise pointless. I knew I was being manipulated and I didn’t appreciate it.
Clearly I had issues with this one. That’s not to say The Moon and More is bad or not worth reading, it just felt like the whole thing was a little labored. I got the impression Dessen was uninspired by her own story, and as a result I was equally uninspired reading it. The bones are there – the style of writing, the familiar small town locale, the types of characters and conflicts – but this time, it just didn’t really come together. if you’re new to the author I wouldn’t recommend The Moon and More as your initiation to the world of Sarah Dessen. Instead, check out Just Listen, Along for the Ride, or The Truth About Forever. I’m hopeful Dessen’s next effort will be more in line with the quality readers have come to expect, but even with its weaknesses it’s not actually all that bad. The Moon and More’s biggest obstacle is simply this: compared to its companions, it’s just not all that memorable.