by: Sarah Dessen
My best friend had this long love affair with Dessen’s books. Though she no longer religiously reads them, when I told her Dessen had stopped by my local bookstore she of course wanted a signed copy. I picked up Keeping the Moon for her and This Lullaby for myself.
Thematically, a number of Dessen’s stories revolve around teenagers resigned to sidekick status, learning to define themselves and leave their family’s shadows. It’s something that most people, but especially teenagers (the target audience), can relate to; not feeling like the star of your own story can be tough to overcome.
This novel is told in first person by Remy, an 18 yr old daughter of a constantly marrying mother and a father who died when she was two. She never met her father, a musician who left before she was born. He died when she was two, his only hit a song dedicated to her: “This Lullaby”, which eventually turns into a classic she can’t escape. It’s along the lines of “Beth” by Kiss, “Hate Me” by Blue October, or “Better as a Memory” by Kenny Chesney – a confession, perhaps, or an apology. (Musically, it’s supposed to be some kind of classic rock, so I always hear the opening strains of “Beth” whenever I read the lyrics.)
I love these types of songs – the sad, dark romance; the brutal honesty; the juxtaposition between the love the singer feels and the actions they are unable to take. And I really love that Dessen examines the other side of this; the people abandoned even as they’re loved. It’s a brilliant premise for an excellent novel.
Remy is an odd mix of wild child and practical adult. She takes care of her mother and the house, is planning her mother’s fifth wedding, conducting summer romances, and preparing to leave for college in the fall. She drinks to deal with life, occasionally slips back to her party-too-hard self, and is understandably cynical. Her brother is becoming serious with his girlfriend and her friends are having their last hoorah.
In the middle of all this, she meets Dexter, a manic pixie dream boy; a college dropout and aspiring musician, co-writer of “The Potato Song” and a hopeless romantic (similar to Augustus from The Fault in Our Stars). I like Dexter, except that there are many times at the beginning when she’s saying “don’t eat in my car” or something similar and he, in order to save her from her own uptightness, goes ahead and does what he wants anyways. Less than attractive. When she’s serious, though, he does respect her refusals so clearly there’s some magic mind-reading or body language the reader isn’t privy to.
Anyway, the book is rather excellent. Remy is caught between the mother who can’t parent and the father who wouldn’t; if she is to grow, she has to let go of her mother, of her control, and of “This Lullaby.” Her mother is a romance writer; decently famous and successful, who believes that every husband is The One. The book is mostly about Remy’s relationships; her relationship with herself, her mother, and brother, with Dexter and her friends, with her father, and his famous song, and with love itself. It feels like it should be written in a flowery and romantic style, but it’s not and that strangely suits the book very well. The book never feels overly emotional or slow on plot; indeed, Remy is not a character overflowing with emotion.
Dessen’s a fairly good writer and she’s very good at exploring relationships and capturing those moments between childhood and adulthood, when teenagers begin to deal with their parents as people and learn to mold themselves outside of the family. This is targeted for teens, but it’s definitely one of those books that adults and preteens will enjoy – the writing and character development is excellent. All the characters feel real – with virtues and flaws and things they just do okay at. They’re engaging and standoffish and sometimes I like them and sometimes I don’t. And it makes for great storytelling.
If you like novels featuring themes of self-discovery and growing up, or if you’ve ever wondered what happened to Beth, then I would highly recommend This Lullaby. If you like books where the main character gets a big scene where they receive apologies and dole out forgiveness, or if you like tons of sappy, tearjerker moments, then, alas, this may not be the book for you.