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What to Keep


What to Keep

At first glance, it might be tempting to file WHAT TO KEEP under
the category of "Chick Lit." All the familiar elements of the genre
are here: the single woman finding her way in New York, her
conflicts with wacky family members, her struggles for career
success. But this tender first novel by Rachel Cline couldn't be
farther from the typical Chick Lit confection. Instead, it's
simultaneously a poignant character study and a moving meditation
on the changing definitions of family.

The novel is divided into three parts, each of which focuses on a
particular moment in the life of its heroine, Denny Roman. In the
first part, she's twelve and about to star in her school play. Her
recently separated parents, both brilliant doctors, are too
distracted by their own concerns to pay much attention to Denny or
to show up for her performance. Instead, Denny's only parental
figure --- "the only adult to whom she was neither confounding nor
overwhelming" --- is the agoraphobic Maureen, who runs a business
organizing the lives of successful but clueless folks like Denny's

In the novel's second section, Denny, now in her mid-twenties and a
struggling actress in Los Angeles, returns home to Ohio to help her
mother and stepfather prepare for their move to New York City. As
Denny decides which of her childhood memorabilia to keep and which
to sell at a garage sale, her failed relationship with her mother
comes to a head.

The final part, set in 2000 in New York City, shows us Denny as an
up-and-coming playwright. This time her parents are willing to see
her play, a fairly transparent allegory of their relationship.
Meanwhile, Denny has a surprise visitor --- the twelve-year-old son
of Maureen, who's now deceased. As Denny works to make sense of her
relationship with her own mother, she considers whether she's ready
to be a mother of sorts to young Luke.

WHAT TO KEEP is an unusual novel, with characters both quirky and
pathetic (sometimes at the same time). Denny is an appealing and
compelling character, growing from an awkward preteen starved for
attention into a complex, confident woman who found success despite
her mother's emotional absence. Instead of being resentful and
bitter toward her mother, Denny develops a capacity to forgive and
even to erase the mistakes of the past by becoming a mother figure

The theme of moving runs throughout the novel, as does the theme of
acting. Denny moves from Ohio to Los Angeles to New York,
ironically following the parents who have for so long moved away
from her both physically and emotionally. As she does so, she
constantly reinvents herself, drawing on her own acting talents and
her odd family dynamics to create her art and her life. Readers
should consider themselves fortunate to be able to take this
journey along with her.

Reviewed by Norah Piehl on January 24, 2011

What to Keep
by Rachel Cline

  • Publication Date: April 20, 2004
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Hardcover: 290 pages
  • Publisher: Random House
  • ISBN-10: 1400061830
  • ISBN-13: 9781400061839