I would argue that this is a very underrated Dessen book, because it doesn’t have the typical conclusion. Ruby is a slight departure from the characters that Dessen usually writes, but in a really great way. You know how these stories go by now, I’m sure—girl is at a crossroads in her life, so she is forced to (or sometimes, chooses to) change, and then she meets a boy. Boy shows her that she is wonderful no matter what. Girl and boy start dating at the end. Some have said (incorrectly, but again, this is subjective) that most of Dessen’s books involved a girl being saved by a boy. Well. Lock and Key turns everything I just said on its head.
Ruby was living alone in the yellow house when she was turned over to Child Services by the landlord. Her mother—her legal guardian, as she’s only 17—is nowhere to be found, and has been gone for quite some time. Child Services gets ahold of Ruby’s long-lost sister, Cora, who moves Ruby out of a place where she’s struggling and into a huge home in a nice subdivision. Ruby, however, has one foot out the door from the very first day there, no matter how welcoming Cora and her husband Jamie are. She’s in the process of running away when she meets Nate Cross, her charismatic next door neighbor, who is also her ride to school. This isn’t how she thought she’d be spending the last months before her 18th birthday. But as she gets to know Nate, as she starts to open herself to life with Cora and Jamie, it starts to feel like she maybe could belong in this world after all. But everyone has secrets, and Nate is holding on to a few too many for Ruby to bear.
This story legitimately breaks my heart every single time I think about it. I think this is when I started to realize how complex Dessen’s characters can be, even though the book seems fluffy on the surface. The Goodreads synopsis for this book is ridiculous—it makes it seem like the only conflict is that Ruby has trouble opening her heart to people.
If that was the central conflict in this book, I wouldn’t be writing this review.
Sure, Ruby has trouble trusting people, but it comes with the way she was raised. I can actually draw a lot of parallels between Ruby and the character of Sandy in Where They Found Her—they are both desperately loyal to the mothers who use and abandon them. And in Lock and Key, part of Ruby’s trust issues go back to the fact that she hasn’t heard from Cora in almost ten years, since Cora went away to college. Part of the healing process for Ruby is redeveloping a relationship with her older sister, who went on to become a lawyer. She also has to learn to trust Jamie, Cora’s husband, even though she’s never had a male figure stick around in her life. Cora and Jamie are such wonderful secondary characters—I would read a spin-off about their love story in a heartbeat. (Oh, SD, you still don’t do spin-offs? Darn.) The trust thing has so much more to do with her family than with Nate, which is why I keep rolling my eyes at the silly Goodreads synopsis.
The reason I love Nate is for some of the same reasons that I love nearly all of the love interests in Dessen’s books—he’s complicated. He has a past. He doesn’t exist solely for our protagonist to learn to love. Nate’s story is messy. He’s still relatively new to the school as well—he used to live in Arizona with his mother, but she kicked him out and sent him to live with his dad. His dad runs a delivery business that means more to him than his son’s schooling, so Nate is worked to the bone. He’s so ridiculously sweet to Ruby, because he sees a darkness in her that he feels in himself. Okay, stop reading if you don’t want spoilers, because I have to talk about what sets this book apart.
Nate doesn’t save Ruby in this book. Ruby saves Nate.
Nate’s father is abusive, and Nate has been in the same boat as Ruby—he’s had one foot out the door from the very beginning. He wants Ruby to love him conditionally, to not ask questions about the bruises on his body, to not raise the alarm about the multiple layers of abuse happening in the Cross household. But she can’t. She keeps him at arms’ length because he won’t let her help him, until he has no choice in the matter anymore, because she saves him anyway.
Ruby is the hero of this story, both for herself and for Nate. And that’s why I love it. She uses the darkness that she knows from her own life to save someone else.
Lock and Key is available where books are sold. Sarah Dessen is also the author of eleven other books, including The Truth About Forever, Just Listen, and Saint Anything. Her newest, Once and for All, is due out in June 2017.