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It is 10 years since I last read a Sarah Dessen book, and it is good to find that she is still a powerful story teller. This is her 14th title in the YA market, and it is satisfying. As with any such work, the plot involves personal struggle, growth, romance, and drama. Our heroine is 17 and she has already gone through a lot. She has two first names, Emma Saylor. Her father calls her Emma but her mother would call her Saylor. Her mother was an addict and her parents divorced when Emma was young. After the divorce Emma stayed with her father while her mother's life became a series of stays in rehab followed by relapses. Eventually her mother overdosed. Her father has remarried and built a new life for them. But in the process, Emma's past relationship with her mother has become buried.
With a slightly baroque plot twist, Dessen puts Emma back in her mother's working class home town for several weeks, staying with her maternal grandmother, and many cousins she has not seen since she was a little girl. These are people who knew her mother well. The location is a holiday town, and there is a family hotel business which just about everyone works for, with the unenviable work of cleaning rooms. At first, Emma struggles to fit in, but soon enough she is cleaning rooms with everyone else, and they have started calling her Saylor.
The duality of Emma's name is reflected in the duality of the two neighboring towns, North Lake and Lake North. Her mother's family is in North Lake, but the fancy area where wealthier families come to stay is Lake North. That is where her father stayed for several summers when he was a teen, and where he met her mother. Emma comes to learn more about her mother's early life and what eventually drove her to leave the area. She was escaping traumatic memories, but she had already become reliant on alcohol and drugs, and she took those habits with her. Emma is able to experience both sides of the duality, and this gives her a perspective that few others have access to.
The changes that Emma undergoes create friction with her father once they are reunited, and Emma has to learn to stand her ground. She finds a way to identify with an important part of her past and her family history, acknowledging the problems her mother had while at the time seeing her mother's strengths too. The Rest of the Story is ultimately about coming to terms with the loss of a parent and reframing one's relationship with the deceased, as well as the living. It's a sophisticated work and readers do not need to be adolescents to find it rewarding.
The unabridged audiobook is performed by Rebecca Soler who gives the novel plenty of energy and feeling.
© 2019 Christian Perring
Christian Perring teaches in NYC.
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