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by Sarah Dessen
Puffin, 2000
Review by Siobhan Mitchell on May 30th 2002

Keeping the Moon

How can you resist an opening like this? “My name is Nicole Sparks. Welcome to the first day of the worst summer of my life.”

Just the first two lines is all it takes to get hooked to Sarah Dessen’s Keeping the Moon, her fourth book and arguably her most engrossing. I stayed up all night to read it and when I finished, the ending was so satisfying that I regretted not an instant of the rest of my groggy, sleep-deprived day.

Nicole Sparks or “Coley” as she is called, is truly a unique and memorable heroine. Coley has spent most of her life overweight and drifting from town to town with her over-ebullient yet impractical mother. Even when things begin to look up for Coley; she slims down and her mother becomes an Oprah-esque weight-loss guru, life is still more pits than cherries. Her image in school turns from fat geek to slutty outcast. As a result Coley has a cynical attitude towards everyone and everything, as so obviously implied in the opening paragraph.

The book begins just as Coley is sent off for the summer to her aunt Mira who lives by the North Carolina coast. Aunt Mira and eccentric habits do little to make Coley feel more at ease, so desperate she is to fit in for once in her new surroundings. Coley’s first morning in the house is comically described, where she wanders around trying to make head or tail of the mysterious notes attached to random objects, such as an index card affixed to the toilet reading, “HANDLE LOOSE, DON’T YANK.” Apparently, her spacey Aunt needs to be aggressively reminded of the minor malfunctions of all the junk she collects her disorganized house.

Eventually, Coley finds a job and friends in two older girls who work as waitresses in the same café with her. Thus the scene is set for either the worst summer of her life, as she predicts or the best and most memorable, as we, the readers, avidly anticipate.

Dessen’s novel is slim but packs a lot of storylines and characters, all written in deft yet riotous fashion. Yet somehow all the story threads come together and fit in to the overlying theme concerning the repair of Coley’s self-esteem and her gradual acceptance of the good points about herself as well as the bad. For instance, Coley’s two new friends have their own problems they must deal with: a philandering, absentee fiancé in one case and social nihilism in the other. Coley of course gets entangled in to both of these friends’ melodramatic lives, which makes her examine her own dysfunctional relationships. Coley has to come to terms with her Mom’s newfound career and her Aunt’s oddness. Coley must also learn to accept the love of a local boy while getting over her cynical view of people and their motives.

Does this sound like a lot of emotional ups-and-downs for a small 228 page paperback? Luckily it all flows together amazingly well and also makes for a very fast-paced and, as I’ve said before, very engrossing novel.

In her website, Dessen revealed her own experience of working in a café while waiting for her big writing break. She certainly writes a convincing portrayal of a café’s chaotic atmosphere during peak season, when Coley is rushing around trying to wait on five tables at once. This is a laugh-out-loud scene, of which there are several in this book.

If one really wanted to quibble with Keeping the Moon, the only thing that would come to mind is the incredible over-use of coincidence to drive many of the storylines. Dessen also admits in her website of being susceptible to flights of fancy  and over-exaggeration. This tendency shows in almost too-tidy plotlines and over-manipulation of characters’ actions. Coley’s voice as a maladjusted teens rings true but some of her summer experiences seem a bit far-fetched.

Overall, this is a small point because the sheer pleasure of reading this book far over-powers any stretching of reality as a plot-device. With Keeping the Moon Dessen has written a book with warmth and humor that is far and above any other book I have read this year.

Link: Sarah Dessen website.


© 2002 E. Siobhan Mitchell

E. Siobhan Mitchell writes about herself:

I am a 27 year old PhD student in neuroscience living in upstate NY. I am studying the effects of prenatal drug exposure on the brain. My favorite authors are Diana Wynne Jones and Wilton Barnhardt. I love reading coming-of-age books and watching the same type of movies. I have a three-year-old son who loves listening to Harry Potter as a bed-time story.