Monday, August 18, 2008


I finished Sarah Dessen's 10-disc tearfest, Lock and Key, in just under a week! That is really fast for me (I try to get to at least a disc a day, so now I'm ahead three!). She is an extraordinarily popular writer for teen girls (a quick look at her blog ... whew! Many, many comments!) who -- in a probably inappropriate analogy -- I'll call the Andrew Clements of high school. Her protagonists are older teenaged girls struggling with family, love, leaving home, and the odd trauma (date rape, sex abuse, alcoholism) in a mostly upper middle class milieu. Sympathetic, authentic-sounding, well-written, and always uplifting, her novels always tell a satisfyingly good story. Girl overcomes trauma, finds an understanding boyfriend, and heads off to a good college. (Perhaps there are some variations, I'm basing my generalizations on the three Dessen novels I've read.)

In Lock and Key, heroine Ruby Cooper has been living in near-poverty with her alcoholic mother. She's in her senior year at a big public school. She holds her own academically, but lacks ambition. Her "friend with privileges" is also her pot dealer. One day her mother disappears and doesn't come back. Ruby knows she can rely only on herself and believes she can hold out until she's 18 and is legally an adult, but her nosy landlords turn her in. She's sent to live with her sister Cora and Cora's husband Jamie in their luxury home in a gated community and is promptly enrolled in Jamie's prep school. Cora and Ruby were once close, but in the 10 years since Cora left to go to college, Ruby has had no contact with her. Ruby -- who isn't interested in rebuilding a relationship with Cora, who she believes deserted her -- initially intends to run away, but circumstances intervene. Over the course of rest of her senior year, Ruby re-learns what it means to be a part of a family.

The title comes from a talisman Ruby wears on a chain around her neck: The key to the house she lived in with her mother. Ruby thinks of this yellow house as her first real home and keeps the key in hopes of returning there.

Dessen's prose is pretty effortless -- metaphors are sprinkled throughout but not in a heavy-handed fashion, the dialogue sounds like real people are having a conversation, the characters are always people you want to know. Good things happen to the good people and the bad are punished. Lock and Key is narrated by Ruby, whose voice is a good combination of armored vulnerability.

It's just too bad that this story went on for 11 hours. It's just way too long to sustain interest over that length of time. I was enjoying Rebecca Soler's interpretation -- Ruby sounded like a teenager, in both her timbre and her slightly sarcastic delivery. She has a slightly nasal voice that is completely appealing to listen to. Oddly, when she needed a strict nasal monotone for one character (described as such in the book), she didn't succeed. She only provided unique voices for a few characters, otherwise everyone was a variation on upper-middle-class, white, educated twenty somethings. Soler was very successful at this -- if I was confused over who was talking, it was quickly remedied by the book: Since so much plot development is dialogue, Dessen makes very clear who is speaking. And Soler's narrative choices kept the "he said" "she said" from becoming annoying. (How does she do that?)

Despite all that, it was a slog to the end. One of the reasons I think I finished it so quickly (aside from the fact that the temperature was over 100 degrees three days in a row and one can't do much but lie still on a cool floor) was because I knew I couldn't let it drag on. By the time I was at disc 6 or 7, I knew all the characters and I knew they were all going to be alright. I knew that Ruby was going to learn to trust again. [Spoilers!] And that Harriet would go out on a date. And that Olivia would support her cousin. And that Nate would go back to swimming. And that Cora would get pregnant. The audio version became a question of simply getting there in the shortest time possible. Some novels are just too long to be "amazing" audios and I think Lock and Key's length ultimately can't be overcome by a great narration.

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