Sarah Dessen’s fourteenth novel, The Rest of the Story, centers on a girl, a life-changing summer, and a lakefront town that’s really two towns: Lake North and North Lake, one populated by the working-class families that live there year round, the other by the wealthy families for whom it’s a summer destination. Emma Saylor is a child of both, spending her first summer with her deceased mother’s family since she was almost too young to remember it. She spends the season detangling her memories and her mother’s history, getting to know her family, and reconnecting with the childhood friend she nearly forgot.
Here, Dessen shares the story behind her own life-altering summer.
This is supposed to be a blog post about the best summer I ever had. But no part of life (mine, anyway) has ever been all good or bad. Even when it seems that way at first.
The June I turned nineteen I was a mess. The year before, I’d graduated high school and was accepted at my first-choice university. But I wasn’t ready for college, not even close, and the school was not a good fit for me. So I dropped out after two and a half months, much to the horror of my parents, both college professors themselves. Have you ever slunk back to your hometown, sure you’re a disappointment to everyone? If not, be glad. It stinks.
So there I was, with no plans, back in my childhood room. I was already sad, but then I got depressed, which I dealt with the same way I had in high school: partying too much and pretending I was fine. By the time the summer started, my Check Engine light had been on for a while. Things were falling apart, and I couldn’t figure out to fix them.
Finally I called my mom, who was up north with my extended family. When I told her everything that was going on, she flew down to North Carolina. Then we got into my ancient Nissan Stanza to make the thirteen-hour road trip to Massachusetts together.
I was not on board with this idea. I’d grown up spending summers on the Cape in our cottage, sailing and swimming and running around barefoot with tons of cousins. In my teen years, though, I started staying in Chapel Hill because I didn’t want to miss hanging out with my friends. I knew my relatives already. Besides, I was sure they’d judge me, like everyone else.
But my family surprised me. Like my Aunt Bobby, who made me spaghetti, patted my hand and said, “It’ll all be okay. Just stay here awhile. You’ll work it out.” At family potlucks, cousins a few years ahead who’d heard what was going on told me about their various humiliations. I’d expected to talk a lot during about what was happening to me on that trip. Instead, I spent much more of it listening, especially to my elderly relatives. They’d lived with so much joy and tragedy. They had a long view I couldn’t see and really needed.
By the end of the summer, I’d gotten some much needed sleep and a good care plan. I came back to UNC and took a writing class with Doris Betts at UNC that basically changed everything. I’d always loved to write. But she was the one who told me I had stories to tell.
Like this one, actually. But like I said at the beginning of this piece, it wasn’t all good or bad, this summer I fell apart, and my family put me back together. Instead, it was real, a good story, one I’ll hope to tell to my younger relatives someday when they are feeling lost. I’ll reach across the table and pat their hand, believing it even if they don’t. It’ll all be okay. Stay here awhile. You’ll work it out.
The Rest of the Story is on sale now.