Sarah Dessen is a master of writing about relationships. And by "relationships," I don't just mean the girl-meets-boy fodder of so many other young adult novels. In previous books, Dessen has thoughtfully and probingly explored the intricacies of relationships between mothers and daughters, co-workers and many kinds of friends. In Lock and Key, Dessen's eighth novel, the relationship under the microscope is that of family.

Seventeen-year-old Ruby's family, though, is anything but ordinary, as she is painfully reminded every time she picks up her semester-long project, an oral history definition of the word "family." For almost as long as she can remember, "family" has meant Ruby and her drifting, unstable, alcoholic mother. Ruby barely remembers the father who left when she was five. She has even managed to mostly forget her sister Cora, who cut all ties with Ruby and their mother when she left for college. When Ruby's mother flies the coop for good, and Ruby is left to fend for herself, social services is called in. Overnight, Ruby's life changes completely—she moves in with her successful sister and brother-in-law, she enrolls at an elite private school, and she even makes friends with her next-door neighbor Nate, a jock whom she and her stoner friends at her old school would have disdained.

New environments mean new relationships, and before long, Ruby finds herself questioning not only the definition of "family" but also everything she's always believed to be true about herself. Dessen's novel gets its title from the key—to her old house and old life—that Ruby wears on a chain around her neck. Nearly every chapter ends with a compelling question or observation on Ruby's unlocking of others' good qualities and of her own potential.

Lock and Key is simultaneously an engaging coming-of-age story and an effective meditation on families—the ones we're born into and the ones we discover along the way.

Norah Piehl is a freelance writer and editor in the Boston area.

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