Title: Lock and Key (2008)
Author: Sarah Dessen
Publisher: Viking Books
Genre: Young Adult, Contemporary
Extent: 432 pages
Release Date: April 22, 2008
Ruby, where is your mother?
Ruby knows that the game is up. For the past few months, she’s been on her own in the yellow house, managing somehow, knowing that her mother will probably never return.
That’s how she comes to live with Cora, the sister she hasn’t seen in ten years, and Cora’s husband Jamie, whose down-to-earth demeanor makes it hard for Ruby to believe he founded the most popular networking website around. A luxurious house, fancy private school, a new wardrobe, the promise of college and a future; it’s a dream come true. So why is Ruby such a reluctant Cinderella, wary and defensive? And why is Nate, the genial boy next door with some secrets of his own, unable to accept the help that Ruby is just learning to give?
Lock and Key is probably my second favourite Sarah Dessen book after the glorious Just Listen.This is the story of Ruby, who, after being abandoned by her mum, now must live with her estranged sister Cora and Cora’s husband Jamie, when all she wants is to just make it to eighteen and leave forever. There are themes of family at play here, themes of abandonment, forgiveness, parent-child relationships.
First off the bat, the characters in this book are amazing. Ruby is a worthy Dessen protagonist: introspective, standoffish, quiet, kind of a loner. Nate, her love interest, is your resident Mr. Nice Guy — ready to help, forever smiling, always friendly, except he too has secrets and problems that he keeps to himself. Cora and Jamie are my two favourite stand-in ‘parents’ ever: they love, respect and complement each other so well that I truly wish we have a book that tells of their story.
“Sure, it sucked to be lost, but I’d long ago realized I preferred it to depending on anyone else to get me where I needed to go. That was the thing about being alone, in theory or in principle. Whatever happened — good, bad, or anywhere in between — it was always, if nothing else, all your own.”
Dessen’s focus on family relationships is my favourite thing about Lock and Key, no contest. With her family history, Ruby struggles to make meaningful connections, always preferring to be by herself, believing that alone is best because other people will just disappoint. It was so good to see her walls break down over time, to see her slowly gain trust in the people around her, to see her progress, regress, and progress again, because it’s definitely not a one-way street.
I also love how this book underlines that ‘family’ isn’t only people who are related to you by blood. Relationships ebb and flow, things are forever changing, and sometimes, the people who care about you the most are people you meet later in life. I thought this part of the book was so well-done, and I commend Dessen for portraying such a realistic family dynamic.
“What is family? They were the people who claimed you. In good, in bad, in parts or in whole, they were the ones who showed up, who stayed in there, regardless. It wasn’t just about blood relations or shared chromosomes, but something wider, bigger. We had many families over time. Our family of origin, the family we created, and the groups you moved through while all of this was happening: friends, lovers, sometimes even strangers.”
Dessen’s writing, as always, is symbolic: every single thing has a meaning in her books— every little action her characters do, every little observation they make. In Lock and Key, the metaphor that permeates every chapter has to do with, well, locks and keys. It’s actually amazing how strongly this symbol was embedded in the story. To me it came to a point where it became a little bit much, but I loved it enough to roll with it.
Lock and Key has an open end, but it personally feels like a beginning instead of a bad ending: life goes on, and so does this story. This is a book that has stayed with me for a long time after I first read it — it’s been eight years, now, and I still think of Ruby, Cora, Jamie, and Nate occasionally.