|Luke is the perfect boyfriend: handsome, kind, fun. He and Emaline have been together all through high school in Colby, the beach town where they both grew up. But now, in the summer before college, Emaline wonders if perfect is good enough.
Enter Theo, a super-ambitious outsider, a New Yorker assisting on a documentary film about a reclusive local artist. Theo’s sophisticated, exciting, and, best of all, he thinks Emaline is much too smart for Colby.
Emaline’s mostly-absentee father, too, thinks Emaline should have a bigger life, and he’s convinced that an Ivy League education is the only route to realizing her potential. Emaline is attracted to the bright future that Theo and her father promise. But she also clings to the deep roots of her loving mother, stepfather, and sisters. Can she ignore the pull of the happily familiar world of Colby?
Emaline wants the moon and more, but how can she balance where she comes from with where she’s going?
Sarah Dessen novels have been a summer staple of mine since I stumbled upon The Truth About Forever in high school and absolutely fell in love. Her books were some of the first contemporary romance YA novels I ever read, and I adore them so much that I revisit my favorites year after year after year, whenever it’s the season and I need something adorable to read. There is just something about her books and her writing… She is able to capture the mundane in a way that is both interesting and emotionally resonating. To the point where I almost always find myself engrossed in the lives of her characters and their stories, wanting to see them learn and grow.
The problem with being such an avid reader of Sarah Dessen’s is that I’ve read every book she’s ever written. I’ve reread all of the books I really loved. I know her formula as well as I know the back of my hand, but there are quirks in some of her novels, subtle differences in the characters and their circumstances and even in the setting, that are still able to make the story interesting for me. Something that sets it apart from other Sarah Dessen novels, but still pulls at my heartstrings in the same manner. And for the most part, these are the novels that I adore (my favorites are The Truth About Forever, This Lullaby, and Just Listen). So whenever a new Sarah Dessen novel has been published, I approach it with excitement and a little reluctance. Because I know I’ll enjoy the story, but I won’t be able to stop comparing it to what I consider the hallmark of Dessen’s work (even if this may seem a little unfair). I need it to be able to stand on its own. But also, I need the feelings — its heart — to be very much the same.
For this reason… I have absolutely no idea what to say about The Moon and More. Like every Dessen novel published after Just Listen, I presented it with the same challenge. Like Lock and Key and Along for the Ride, it nearly succeeded, and then, ultimately I’m not sure if it failed or if it gave me exactly what I asked for.
The Moon and More takes place in the summer, relating the story of a girl (Emaline) during the transitional period between high school and college, her teenage years and adulthood. It started the way several of its predecessors began, detailing the intricacies and complexities of the girl’s familial relationships, re-introducing a familiar setting through the eyes of this new protagonist, and introducing a boy (Theo) who would end up challenging the way the girl thinks, learning from her and helping her learn something new about herself. It was the Dessen formula in a nutshell, and though I felt disappointed that she hadn’t tried something new with this one, I had fallen into Emaline’s life easily, recognizing Dessen’s writing and her scenarios as something familiar, a home of sorts.
And yet, this novel surprised me. While it is true that these elements, key facets of Dessen’s works, are present in the novel, The Moon and More felt different for me in a way I had not expected at all. Mostly because The Moon and More is not actually a love story. It isn’t about an epic summer love; it isn’t about a girl meeting a boy and discovering him to be “the one”. I don’t know if I can call this a summer romance novel like most of Dessen’s other novels because even though there are romantic relationships in the novel, it is not the focus. Instead, any romance in The Moon and More is used directly to illustrate changes in Emaline, character development. This book is Emaline’s alone.
What I loved about The Moon and More is that essentially, it is about a girl trying to figure out the pieces of her life, her feelings about them, and how they fit in during this time when everything is changing. It’s a common Dessen plot, but instead of the romance fueling the character’s epiphany by the end, Emaline does it on her own, through her own observations. The romance is more or less something that just happens, something she learns from, and something that may or may not be irrelevant aside from the lessons it taught her.
My favorite feature of this book is the realism. Though many contemporary novels (including Sarah Dessen’s former ones) revolve around realistic situations, I think this is the first time I’ve seen a novel feature estranged parental relationships that don’t end well (and probably won’t… ever), great romantic relationships that end badly, and a seemingly great (non-abusive) relationship that isn’t actually great at all (it’s just…meh). The Moon and More‘s main theme is that everything in life cannot be “the best”. Every moment or relationship can’t possibly be epic (because then the ‘epic’ would become ‘the mundane’ and… where do you go from there?), there has to be ups and downs. This meant that while Emaline’s situation with her biological father constantly frustrated me, I understood why Sarah Dessen wrote it the way she did — situations like Emaline’s happen in real life all the time. The other main difference in this book is that it features not one, but two relationships, and the romance is basically up in the air. Emaline begins the summer with her long term boyfriend, Luke, whom she has been dating for four years. Though they’re a great couple (for the most part), they’ve been dating so long that neither of them feel much of a spark anymore, even though they still deeply care for each other. So their relationship is gradually falling apart. Not because they don’t love each other, not because Emaline’s intrigued by the new city boy who just arrived in Colby, but because they are teenagers who have dated since freshman year — they don’t know anything else, they don’t know anyone else, and they are at the point in their lives when new people, new experiences, and inquisitiveness reign.
The new romance that begins in The Moon and More, on the other hand, is such a dud that I had to question if I was “reading the book right” so many times. I could not believe Sarah Dessen, the queen of summer boys who take my breath away (Wes Baker and Dexter Jones) would introduce a character who was ridiculous, pretentious, way out of line, and constantly needed to be punched in the face. Especially when it takes Emaline longer than it took me to realize it. It was frustrating reading a novel I expected to be a romance with a relationship that was all wrong when the summary made it seem like I would like this new boy who was a refreshing change from the boys Emaline knew, this character who, for the most part, seemed to be artsy and quirky and interesting — the type of things I usually fall in love with. But everything about Theo only seemed to make me angry, and he never once respected Emaline as her own person (if she disagreed with him, she was simply wrong or confused or sheltered and did not yet “know better”). Strangely, being with Theo, who provided insight into city life (and the life of the wealthy), did help Emaline discover how much time she spends wishing for something better, taking for granted all the things she loves about her family and her home in Colby. He also taught her to go after the things in life that matter to her, that if there was something better out there, she should try her best to seize it. As a boyfriend, Theo was pretty unmemorable (I would erase him from my memory if I was Emaline, to be honest), but as a person, he was responsible for Emaline’s altered outlook on life. He affected her thoughts and opinions, and he helped her become more comfortable with whom she is (and whom she is not).
The biggest change, and the reason why I am uncertain about the feelings the novel leaves me with, is the fact that because the book is not about a romance, the timeline and the plot focus on Emaline. In the beginning, Emaline has doubts about her life and curiosity about the world. In the middle, she meets and dates Theo, challenging her opinions and feelings and discovering things about herself. By the end, her worldview is altered, she herself as reached some sort of conclusion — as much of a conclusion as a growing, learning individual about to leave for college (and change some more) can. Previous Dessen timelines revolve around the romance, the introduction, the things the boy and girl learn about themselves from the relationship, some kind of epiphany but also relationship-closure (which usually, except in the case of Dreamland, means that the relationship is solid by the end of the novel, or it will be solid when the characters meet again). There is no relationship-closure in The Moon and More. By the end of the novel, Emaline is in a good place with herself. She knows where she stands with her family. However, she has no idea where she stands with Luke. Even while she was dating Theo, it was obvious that she and Luke cared about each other. He was still there for her as a friend when she needed him, he still wanted to know why she was upset and to do whatever he could to make her feel better. I’ll be honest — I was rooting for them from the start. But like real relationships, the fact that they had feelings for each other was not enough, and both Emaline and Luke, who had spent their teenage years together, needed to learn who they are without eachother. It’s a mature decision not to reconcile by the end of the novel (not romantically, anyway), but it’s a decision that is so different from Sarah Dessen’s novels, so unexpected, that I found myself a little disappointed in the end. Emaline’s story is very much finished, but Emaline and Luke are a story that have barely just started. Maybe they’ll realize they found the real thing in high school, somewhere down the line, and find each other again. Or maybe they’ll just be that perfect high school romance they carry with them in memory, something that was a huge part of who they were as teenagers, but nothing more. I don’t know (though I want to believe the former), but this uncertainty, even if Emaline’s personal story was resolved, haunted me after finishing the novel. As realistic as it was, part of me could not help but wish for the usual Sarah Dessen endings. I needed some more closure.
I could relate to Emaline in a way that I have not been able to relate to a Sarah Dessen character since Macy from The Truth About Forever. Emaline was intelligent and logical, but sometimes she made poor choices. Work, sibling issues, her complicated relationship between her family and her biological father on top of issues with her boyfriend frustrated her. Sometimes things got to be too much that she’d break down and cry. She was a strong character, but she was not untouchable or immune. I liked her because she was human.
If it isn’t already obvious, I loved Luke. A lot. He and Emaline tie for my second favorite character (my first is Emaline’s half-brother, Benji), even though he spent most of The Moon and More off-screen. Aside from the fact that most of his appearances (from his shirtlessness to his adorable grins) made me swoon, the thing that I liked most about him was that he was complex. At one point in the story, Luke, like Emaline, feels frustrated that their relationship is too comfortable. It is not easy being in a four-year relationship when you are seventeen/eighteen-years-old, and you have never really dated anyone else. Older couples struggle with this all the time, but they have the experience of having known what else is out there, if anything at all, and I could understand both his and Emaline’s feelings on this front. What I cannot condone is cheating, which is exactly where this leads Luke. So I ended up frustrated, wanting to hate this character for this jerky (understatement of the year) thing he’d done, but having the most difficult time holding it against him forever because he’d appear whenever Emaline needed someone, and his presence, their friendship, would be of a great help to her. I still don’t condone cheating, but I like that this novel and this character challenged my own feelings. All cheaters are not total dirtbags, even if they do something a “total dirtbag” would do, and all seemingly perfect, nice boys are not incapable of making mistakes and treating someone badly, even someone they truly care about.
This is not the first time Sarah Dessen has portrayed negligent (or even “bad”) parents, but this is the first time that there was not some kind of change — even a small one — in the relationship between the parent and child. Emaline’s biological father is an elitist jerk, who was unable to understand her feelings even when she shouted them out loud in his face. He comes across as condescending, selfish, and rude, and even when he tries to be helpful, he is thinking about things in relation to himself, not his daughter. In the end, this is a relationship that cannot be fixed, which, sadly, is also very realistic. (Some things you can’t change, even when you want to change them. Even when you make the effort.)
I usually love Dessen’s portrayal of sibling relationships, but because Emaline was working throughout the summer of her senior year, I felt The Moon and More only gave us a glimpse of what her life was like at home. Her step sisters were introduced, but only briefly. I wanted to get to know them more.
As previously mentioned, my favorite character was Emaline’s half-brother, Benji. He was an adorable, energetic little boy, and I loved the time she spent bonding with him and getting to know that side of her family through him. I also love that he was on Team Luke since the very beginning. He made me smile every time he was on the page.
I found it interesting that Sarah Dessen introduced Theo the way she introduces all of her quirky, artistic, intelligent boys. I actually love that despite the fact that he’s first portrayed as an adorkable nerd, he’s not likable at all. Every YA contemporary novel these days seems to be about “quirky nerds”, so it was refreshing to meet one who was still all of those things that make him quirky and nerdy, but was also very unlikable. (Seriously, I wanted someone to punch him in the face.)
In retrospect, I should have known the second Theo met Emaline’s father (not her dad) that I would spend a great portion of this book hating him.
The Moon and More describes the awkwardness in relationships, both new and long-term, so well. It made me cringe to see Theo plan probably the Worst Date Ever (repeatedly), or to witness Emaline feigning that she was enjoying herself when she actually was not. Emaline and Luke’s weirdness with each other after they first started having a sexual relationship also seemed quite real to me. New relationships and new steps in old relationships are both hard, so some awkwardness is bound to happen.
I adored Emaline’s relationship with her best friend Daisy, who complemented her and challenged her and sometimes took her out of her comfort zone. However, my favorite friendship in this novel was Emaline and Morris’. Morris was a character who annoyed me at first, but quickly tied with Benji for the character who stayed with me the most long after I’d finished reading. I like that he tries better for his girlfriend (Daisy), that he’s a great listener, that he’s someone Emaline can depend on as a friend even if he’s not the most reliable when it comes to work. Watching him mature alongside Emaline, especially in the work ethic department, was a pleasure and something I did not expect at all. In the end, Morris was the character I was most proud of.
Sometimes the plot moved too slowly in this book, especially in the middle. Because the book was a little longer than Sarah Dessen’s other books, this slow pacing was really noticeable and made it a little difficult to read at times, especially when those times were about Theo (who, in case you can’t tell yet, made me quite angry).
I hate seafood, but The Moon and More made me want to try a shrimp burger.
Sarah Dessen cited the title throughout the book more than she usually does. Though it was not an enormous amount, by the fourth time I had seen the words “the moon and more”, I was a little frustrated.
I loved Emaline’s relationship with her parents (her mom and dad, not her father). I love that Sarah Dessen pointed out the difference between a dad and a father and portrayed it well.
I know some people are going to think that Emaline moved on way too fast when she started dating Theo right after she and Luke broke up, but I disagree. Emaline was sad, lonely, and angry at the way things ended between them. Her best friends were dating, so she didn’t want to tag along and be the third wheel, and this was the summer right before she left for college. She never said she was in love with Theo, but when he asked her out, I don’t think you can blame her for saying yes and giving that a try anyway.
Unlike most Sarah Dessen novels, this book does not have a huge climax, what I’ve come to call the Dessen protagonist’s “Eureka moment”. I liked that this time, it was subtle. There is a change, and you witness it happen gradually. It does not suddenly hit her, as it does in Along for the Ride and Just Listen; it just sneaks up on her until she realizes she has changed. I liked this better because not everything has to be IMMEDIATE and PROFOUND. Sometimes things influence you over a period of time and you don’t even realize you’ve changed, but you have.
One of the biggest aspects of Emaline’s story was her complicated relationship with her father, only made more complicated by the fact that he encouraged her to apply for an Ivy League school, Columbia University, informing her that he’d be happy to finance her education, only to go back on his word when she actually was accepted. The point of this plot was to illustrate how unreliable her biological father was, but it actually bothered me because Ivy League education at the undergraduate level, had Emaline actually thought to file for financial aid, includes free tuition for anyone under a certain income (which, I believe, would have included Emaline’s family). I know her father made her a promise, but as someone who files for FAFSA every year (even for my siblings), it frustrated me that Emaline, who is usually logical, did not think to have a back-up plan. Even when you don’t think you will qualify, you should always file for financial aid. Just in case. In this situation, she wouldn’t have needed her unreliable father at all. (I know this was not the point of this plot, but it annoyed me every time it was mentioned because she could have gone to the school of her dreams had she only completed the application anyway.)
I adore all of Sarah Dessen’s former covers, so this one really bothered me. (It seemed more generic, primarily because I love the way her old covers use symbols and natural photography without much of a person in it, and this one actually has a whole person and a scene, even if you cannot see her face.) I do, however, like how it directly relates to the story (the beach setting and a girl on a bridge, trying to find her balance).
References to other Sarah Dessen stories in her new novels always make me excited. In The Moon and More, Maggie, Heidi, Auden, and Clyde make an appearance from Along for the Ride, as do Clementines, the Washroom, and Tallyho. There is a mention of Wes and Bert Baker and their neverending game of GOTCHA from The Truth About Forever, and Luke turned out to be Wes’ (and Bert’s) cousin (this explains SO much — Wes is my favorite Dessen boy ever, so I was bound to fall for Luke from the start). SPINNERBAIT from This Lullaby also had a mention (Hate Spinnerbait!).
I was expecting the end of this book to be very similar to the romantic comedy film, What a Girl Wants, with Luke and Emaline rekindling their relationship at the wedding, where they’d dance together and all would be well. Though this isn’t what I received (and it’s better for Emaline’s story that it had not happened this way at all), part of me still can’t help but long for this to have been the real ending.
In my head, Luke and Emaline spent the next few years apart, but around the end of their time in undergrad together, they reconnected. And during their years apart, they remained friends, especially when they both returned to Colby for the summer. I believe in this ship.
The Moon and More is a novel about growing up, chasing after your dreams while still appreciating your roots and everything that has molded you into the person you’ve become. Fans of Sarah Dessen looking for something refreshing will enjoy this novel. However, readers expecting a more romantic story may feel a little disappointed.