It’s her last summer before leaving for college, and Emaline knows everything is going to change. She just didn’t expect it to change this much.
In Sarah Dessen’s “The Moon and More,” Emaline has lived her entire life in Colby, a small beach town on a coastal island. It’s a resort town, swamped with tourists every summer, and the locals have a strong Us vs. Them mentality when it comes to outsiders.
Emaline works for the family real estate company, which manages several beachfront rental properties. Her days consist of checking in new guests, and delivering extra towels and VIP platters of fruit and cheese. The last summer before college is already heavy with the burden of change, but Emaline's summer is made extra-complicated by the arrival of her biological father and half-brother for a summer-long stay. Then she breaks up with her boyfriend of three years, Luke, and shortly after begins a relationship with Theo, a New Yorker who is definitely Not From Here.
Emaline's mother—who gave birth to Emaline as a teenager, after her own summer romance with someone Not From Here—has always wanted "the moon and more" for her daughter. But first Emaline has to figure out what she wants out of life. Not what everyone else wants or expects her to do, but what she wants.
Dessen’s writing is confident and assured, and Emaline’s first-person narration avoids common pitfalls like chattiness or frequent digressions. But for all its technical aplomb, the story feels curiously emotionless. Emaline is a serious, focused young woman, but these character traits translate to a very stoic voice. In one scene, Emaline admits to being happy, which surprised me, as it was in no way apparent through her thoughts or actions until that moment.
The impression I got of Emaline is that she is participating in events and watching them unfold with an impassive face. When she cries or laughs, those actions always feel somehow detached from her narration. Emaline’s stoicism is in stark contrast to the clear emotion of the rest of the characters in the book: her half-brother Benji vibrating with the repressed energy of a 10-year-old boy; her mother’s apologetic anxiety; her father’s embarrassment and shame. Even her friend Morris’s laconic nature is clearly covering deep emotions.
This lack of emotional connection to Emaline contributes to what I felt was the book's biggest flaw: Emaline is not terribly likable. Her remoteness and reserve make it hard to connect with her, which means that when she makes bad decisions or treats someone poorly, there is nothing keeping us from recoiling from her.
For example, the first time she encounters her mother, Emaline speaks to her as though she were an annoying younger sister instead of a parent. And the first conversation she has with Morris, her best friend, consists solely of her chiding him. While these examples are not the whole of Emaline’s relationship with her mother or her best friend, they come early in the book when we are still learning who Emaline is, and so they only serve to make Emaline feel, well, mean. In fact, when Luke later points out that Emaline and hard-nosed, demanding New Yorker Ivy are similar, he’s right.
Though it makes up the crux of the plot, Emaline's breakup with Luke and subsequent relationship with Theo also detract from her likeability. She admits to some guilt and confusion, but that doesn't stop her from agreeing to start dating Theo mere hours after ending her relationship with Luke. Her affection for Theo also seems forced. He has endearing moments, to be sure, but more often he is pretentious or trying too hard to make everything special. I was never sure, reading the book, why Emaline was interested in him—or even if she was truly interested in him. And because Emaline is so smart, so focused, and so reserved, it's hard to remember that she's only 18 years old and needs room and grace to make mistakes.
While Emaline's character makes it difficult to truly enjoy the book, there are bright spots. Other storylines, especially the one involving Emaline's father and her half-brother Benji, are much more compelling than her relationship with Theo. Colby's resident artist, Clyde, is also intriguing and amusing, and his curmudgeon appeal made him one of my favorite characters. I also deeply appreciated that Dessen did not tie up all the storylines with a neat bow. Some of them end sweetly, but others are left messy or unknown, just like life.
In fact, that is probably this book's strongest element: It does not shy away from life. In real life, we make questionable romantic decisions. In real life, our relationship with our estranged father is not magically healed during a summer visit. In real life, our siblings are utterly infuriating but there for us when it counts. Dessen doesn't sugarcoat anything. Emaline does learn her lessons a little too neatly—reciting them back for us in sage, quotable sentences—but if those lessons can help young readers work through their own complicated life situations, then slightly heavy-handed moralizing is easily forgiven.
Geared toward older teen readers, the book's content reflects mainstream teenage culture and lifestyle. Multiple characters swear. Emaline participates in underage drinking and is sexually active. Her best friend Daisy has chosen to abstain until marriage, but for cultural, not religious reasons. Parents will want to reserve this book for older readers who are not easily influenced.
Dessen is a much-loved, bestselling author, and it's clear—from her writing talent and ability to create compelling characters and relational storylines—why this is so. While “The Moon and More”is an easy read with some good wisdom to share, its emotionally remote main character will, I think, keep many readers from truly connecting with the story.
Image copyright Viking Juvenile. Review copy obtained from the reviewer's local library.
Jessica Barnesedits inspirational fiction at a small publishing company. She can also be found at storydriveneditorial.com.
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