Denny Roman, the protagonist in Rachel Cline's honest, heartwarming debut novel, may seem like any other preteen in suburban Ohio, preoccupied with boys, bras and a part in the school play. But trouble lurks beneath the girl's bubbly exterior, as she struggles to communicate with her divorced mother Lily, a brilliant neuroscientist utterly devoid of maternal inclinations.

Presented in three distinct parts, What to Keep is a smart, wry commentary on "how easy it is to screw things up with the people you love." While Lily may be her biological mother, Denny's world revolves around a quirky agoraphobic named Maureen, the eye in the hurricane of her daily teenage life in the wake of her parents' separation. Fourteen years go by, and Denny, now an aspiring actress in Hollywood, returns to her childhood home to decide "what to keep" before her mother and new stepfather relocate to New York. Unearthing old memories fills Denny with both nostalgia and dread. "She pictures the denuded living room floor. . . . Though she learned to crawl, walk, skip, dance, and God knows what else in that very room, it will soon look like she was never there."

A decade later, Denny has moved to Manhattan, where she's taken to writing plays rather than auditioning for them. Days from the opening of her first production on Broadway, she receives news that Maureen has died. When Maureen's 12-year-old son, Luke, appears at her door, Denny ponders the possibility of adopting the young man to honor the memory of the most pivotal person in her life.

Writers are often instructed to write what they know; Rachel Cline has followed that lesson to the letter. Born to a brainy, distracted mother, she herself did time in the trenches of Hollywood before returning to New York on what she calls "the dark side of thirty-five." Her brisk, refreshingly candid novel will ring true to anyone whose family doesn't quite fit the mold.


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