I’m reviewing these two together because they’re both about girls named Ruby, and possibly also about nothing. One does it artfully and meaningfully, and the other is basically TV of the 90’s sitcom variety.
So. The Treasure Map of Boys is smart and snarky but my primary reaction was, “Where are the dragons? What do you mean there aren’t any dragons? The conflict is staged around a bake sale?”
- If you encounter your therapist in the wild on the arm of a long-haired hippie with severe foot fungus, and said fungal hippie calls your therapist “Smoochiepoo” and she doesn’t immediately spray him with mace, fire your therapist.
- If the entire theme of a book is chicks-before-dicks, at least add a hilarious bros-before-hos subplot. It is both right and good. Editors! Do any of you earn your paychecks?
- Also, positing chicks-before-dicks, why is the subtitle “Noel, Jackson, Finn, Hutch, Gideon — and Me, Ruby Oliver”? Something’s missing in the title, you bad bad friend.
I was about to give Treasure Map a higher rating and blame myself as an uninterested reader when Lock and Key immediately disproved this theory. Lock and Key‘s protagonist — also 17, also first-person, also named Ruby — grew up with an alcoholic mess of a mother and finally got hauled in by Child Welfare just a few months shy of her 18th birthday. Her estranged sister takes her in and sends her to a ritzy private school, where she keeps meeting people who are decent. Just one decent person after another. The whole book is about Ruby adjusting to the Parade of Decency, and it’s strangely mesmerizing.
Dessen pulls off something rare. Normally, in self-actualization story arcs, character development coincides with certain milestones. For example, major events will coalesce around graduation or a birthday or a visit from your parents. External events give shape to the emotional development.
Not so with this book. Reading Lock and Key is like staring at a blossom as it opens. Thanksgiving happens without any major epiphanies — just the ordinary, secondhand stress of participating in a big dinner. Christmas happens, and a few meaningless gifts drift in. The big English paper on “what family means” gets written, and the world doesn’t change. Graduation happens, and it’s not symbolic of anything.
Instead, the meat of the story happens in all these interstitial moments of errand running and random run-ins in the kitchen. I was fully hooked despite wondering, for the entire 400 pages, Ou est le action? This is the kind of stunt people normally pull when baiting the Booker prize, but Dessen pulls it in a story arc usually covered by Lifetime movies.
Distracting sidenote (editors, where are you?): High schoolers who drive BMWs don’t work retail jobs after school, do they? I’m pretty sure they’re interning at the radio station or scooping up résumé points at the soup kitchen. Likewise, a person who lives in the same neighborhood as the Facebook founder couldn’t possibly pretend to finance that lifestyle with a two-person errand-running business. I mean, do the math. Said errand-running person at one point says tactlessly to Facebook founder, “Hey, nice house! That must have cost a million!” Look, this book was published in 2008. You can’t get a corner-unit condo for a mere million. Taken together, this makes me fret about Sarah Dessen’s grasp of personal finance. I don’t want her accountant to abscond to Rio with all her hard-earned royalties; Dessen seems like a really nice person.