With her signature themes of contemporary family, love and transition, Sarah Dessen’s newest release, “The Rest of the Story,” is a layered novel perfect for end of summer reading.
Anxious-prone protagonist Emma Saylor has lived a solid life with her reliable father in a well-to-do city — albeit in the aftermath of her mother’s death, who overdosed nearly eight years ago when Emma was 12. Now a teenager, with few memories of her mother outside of the addiction issues that plagued their family all her years, and a father reluctant to talk about her or the past, Emma finds herself wondering about all those missing years and who her mother was before the downslide.
Emma, now 17, reliant on her routine and what to expect to control her anxiety and obsessions, is thrown a curveball when her few-week summer vacation with a best friend changes into her staying with her unfamiliar maternal grandmother, Mimi. Emma is hesitant to see a family she has no memory of, all related to a mother she only knows one side of, so the decision is a difficult one to stay for several weeks at a lake town. Her father, Matthew, and new bride, are off to honeymoon, however, and Emma doesn’t want to put a wrench in their plans.
Mimi lives on the shores of Lake North, where her mother grew up. One piece Emma does recall about her mother are the bedtime stories she told her — all about a large, magical lake that went on forever and a young girl who loved it like her own heart.
Upon arrival, Emma works to fit in and against the anxiety that tells her to stick with what can be predicted, to organize and clean and keep the order. Here, there are two communities on both sides of the lake, one a working-class side with locals who keep the tourist seasons going and one wealthy, mostly where the tourists come to stay and vacation. It is an entirely different dynamic than what Emma has ever known.
Here at Lake North, Emma meets cousins she did not know she had and begins working at their hotel, cleaning rooms and getting to know a family who has never forgotten her — as well as friends — some who knew her as a very small child. Emma also meets a boy whose father was once her mother’s best friend. Throughout the experiences, Emma sees photos, learns about dark and painful secrets that may have contributed to her mother’s difficulty coping and a single, awful loss.
Despite Emma’s short stay over just part of a summer in Lake North, she connects to the area, the lake, its people and her family. What was only supposed to be a short stint becomes part of her forever, and she fears losing it.
As in her past novels, Dessen takes her time creating a well-rounded and flawed character one can’t help but want to see succeed and overcome her obstacles and need for predictability in life and family. Her side characters are also well drawn and real to life, at many times laugh out loud funny and genuine.
Ultimately, the story is one of uncovering one’s own past, testing boundaries, learning about the other side of the tracks — or lake — and finding that niche with family roots and a true sense of home.
“‘It just makes sense, right?’ I said. ‘A life isn’t just the pages you know, it’s everything. We just can’t see what’s happened yet.’ Somewhere near him at the Station, there was a burst of laughter, loud and sudden. When it died down, he said, ‘Okay, then. What’s your picture?’ ‘Of what?’ ‘The future,’ he replied. ‘What’s the rest of your story?’ I thought for a second. What did I see, or want to see, ahead? ‘Proof that it’s not over, that I’ll come back. That’s what I want.’ … ‘Well, for what it’s worth, nobody here’s forgetting you … the lake keeps us.’”