TITLE: Lock & Key
AUTHOR: Sarah Dessen
GENRE: YA Contemporary
FORMAT: eBook, 283 Pages (2008)
Ruby knows how to fend for herself. After all, she’s been doing that for the past few months. Scraping a living together from her after school job, living alone in the little yellow house she used to share with her mother, she finally has a degree of independence. But the show is over, because her mother is missing and now Ruby’s estranged sister has reappeared in her life after years of not being there when they needed each other the most. Cora and her husband Jamie take Ruby back with them to their palatial home in the suburbs, enroll her in a prestigious private school, and seem determined to give her everything she lacked throughout her childhood. But why is living the easy life so much harder than getting by on her own?
Ruby, the product of a brokenÂ home and a single parent who isn’t much of a parent at all, is an entire world removed from the protagonist of The Truth About Forever, which was my first ever Sarah Dessen book. While Macy has a roof over her head, money in the bank and a pretty secure existence, Ruby has had to cope with abuse and neglect. When her sister whisks her away from what she knows, it’s like being relocated to an alien planet. Lock and Key deals with some tougher issues than I’ve seen so far in this author’s work, and while it had some flaws, I still think it handled those difficult topics very well, and that it ended with a familiar sense of hope that is iconic of Dessen’s books.
First of all, I have to mention that I love the way Sarah Dessen writes standalone novels that are still set in the same universe, so we get to catch glimpses of characters from other books (and wildly wave to them, if you’re a massive nerd like me) and get that extra little boost of comfort and familiarity. If you’ve read The Truth About Forever, some of Macy’s co-workers from Wish make a cameo appearance and it all takes place in the same neighborhood so Ruby’s sister and brother-in-law actually live in a neighborhood designed by Macy’s parents. I personally really like little details like this. It’s a lot like running into someone you know after years of not seeing each other, and having this resurgence of good memories from the last time you met. I enjoy seeing how all these different characters, with all their different stories and situations, can still be subtly connected to one another even in the smallest ways.
Ruby wasn’t as endearing to me as Macy was, though I can’t put my finger on just why. I did admire her strength and her courage, and I did appreciate that she was this really tough girl having to learn how to trust others instead of alienate herself from them. I guess I just didn’t bond with her in the same way I bonded with Macy, who was slightly more accessible as a character. I did love Nate and thought he was pretty well-written; he surprised me several times, and his personality was just the thing Ruby needed to offset her own. The supporting cast, especially Ruby’s brother-in-law Jamie, were also wonderful and as memorable as I expected them to be.
What I feel this book does best is portraying the fact that there are many different kinds of abuse. It doesn’t have to be physical. In Ruby’s case, she suffered from a neglectful parent even more than a physically violent one. One of the characters also deals with verbal abuse and neglect of a different kind, because a parent can still pay attention to their child, but in all the wrong ways… which is still neglecting their needs. Both Nate and Ruby are products of divorce, and you are able to see two different ways in which divorce affects children. I think these tough issues resonated with me more than Ruby did because as a teacher I’ve unfortunately seen a lot of this in my classroom. It’s saddening, but also makes me want to do something to help, and I liked that the characters strive to help one another — I especially like that they learn to reach out to others for that help instead of constantly internalizing or trying to deal with things on their own. So, I’d like to give the author props for handling sensitive subjects well and not trying to sugarcoat them or disguise them as something else.
Another thing Lock & Key accomplishes is an exploration of the different shades of being a family and the true definition of that word. Ruby struggles with this concept for the majority of the book, slowly learning what family means and how to accept the family that she has. Dealing with trust and abandonment issues makes this an uphill battle for her, but it was something that I found really heartening to watch unfold. There are so many different kinds of families, and not everyone in your family needs to be bound to you by blood. Friends are family too, and even broken families are still families. I was especially touched by Ruby’s relationship with her sister Cora because I’m a sister myself.
I didn’t have very many problems with the story, though I did think it was more predictable than The Truth About Forever. I thought Ruby and Nate’s private school, Perkins Day, was a little bit too utopian and therefore rather unrealistic, but it wasn’t something that I couldn’t relegate to the background while I focused on the characters and their growth instead. My other problem was with the resolution of things with Nate, which felt kind of unsatisfying to me but at the same time was appropriate in a lot of ways, so I couldn’t rail against it as much as I wanted to. I mean, the way things went with him made a lot of sense, even if it wasn’t what I wanted to happen, and I can accept that. I guess. Maybe. LOL.
This Dessen offering takes us through darker territory than most of her books, with a protagonist that has to pick up the pieces after a lifetime of abuse and instability. But it’s also infused with strong messages about breaking the cycle of abuse, as well as the meaning of family, and how the ties we forge with other people have so much power to help and to heal.