Sarah Dessen

Lock and Key

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Lock and Key Summary

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Lock and Key is a 2008 young adult novel by American author Sarah Dessen. Her other works include her 1996 debut That Summer and New York Times best-seller Along for the Ride. She is a repeat winner of the Margaret A. Edwards Award for novels. Dessen frequently explores themes like changing personalities, emotional unavailability, and isolation. Lock and Key tells the story of seventeen-year-old Ruby Cooper, her alcohol- and drug-addicted mother, and Ruby’s sister, Cora, who left for college early in Ruby’s life.

When Ruby’s mother abandons her, child services forces Ruby to live with Cora and her husband, dot-com millionaire Jamie Hunter. Jamie grew up in a close family and wants to share that type of life with Cora and Ruby. Ruby’s not happy with this arrangement and finds it difficult to trust anyone. She wears the key to her former home on a chain around her neck. She tries to run away after learning that she will have to transfer to a new high school, but she’s discovered and stopped. Nate Cross, a fellow high school senior who lives next door, covers for Ruby. As the novel progresses, they grow closer together.

Ruby begins to accept and settle into her new life. She finds out that Cora wasn’t ignoring her over the years, as she had assumed. Cora had been attempting to save Ruby from the life she was living with their mother, but Cora’s efforts were always blocked. This realization is too much for Ruby to deal with. She skips school and turns to drugs and alcohol. Later, she finds herself in a car with Nate, who has picked her up. Jamie is extremely angry at Ruby when she arrives home that day. He tells her that she’s being ungrateful to both him and Cora. When Ruby thinks about this, she realizes there are similarities between her and her mother. She resolves to change her behavior.

Harriet, a client of Nate’s, offers Ruby a job at her jewelry store in a nearby mall. The necklace Ruby wears inspires a line of pendants in the shape of keys, which become big sellers, increasing business for Harriet’s store. Harriet, meanwhile, is struggling with an inner conflict. She strives to be independent and, because of this, she is unsure of entering into a relationship with Reggie, the owner of a kiosk next to her store.

Ruby begins to have suspicions about Nate’s father. In time, she learns that he is abusive toward Nate. Ruby’s suspicions lead Nate to become defensive and create distance in their relationship.

As the story continues, Cora and Jamie tell Ruby that her mother was found unconscious in a hotel and placed in a rehabilitation facility. Ruby then finds out that Nate has run away. She locates him in an apartment that he had shown her once when she went to work with him. Nate later resolves to leave his father and to go live with his mother. Ruby drives him to the airport. In a symbolic gesture, Ruby takes the key from her old house off of its chain and puts her key to Cora and Jamie’s house in its place. She gives the necklace to Nate.

As the school year draws to a close, Ruby presents an English report on the meaning of family. In it, she shows pictures of two families. One is of Jamie’s family, which is a large group. The other is a photograph taken at Ruby’s eighteenth birthday party.

Cora finds out that she’s pregnant. Ruby learns that she’s been accepted to the same college that Nate will be attending. Ruby decides to write a letter to her mother but can’t figure out what to say. Instead, she mails her mother a copy of her college acceptance letter. The novel ends with Ruby in the backyard while Cora and Jamie call for her to leave with them for her graduation. She removes the key to her old house from her pocket and drops it into the koi pond.

Publishers Weekly said of Lock and Key, “All the Dessen trademarks are here—the swoon-worthy boy next door who is not what he appears to be, and the supporting characters who force Ruby to rethink her cynical worldview, among them the frazzled owner of a jewelry kiosk at the mall. The author again defines characters primarily through dialogue, and although Ruby and her love interest, Nate, sound wiser than their years, they talk the way teens might want to—from the heart. A must for Dessen fans, this will win her new readers, too.”