Told in three parts, Rachel Cline's What to Keep feels like three different snapshots of what life is like for Denny (Eden) Roman at the ages of twelve, twenty-six, and finally at thirty-six. In each section of the book, we see a different version of Denny, along with her parents Lily and Charles Roman, who at the start of the novel are already divorced.
But right away one can see that, even with the divorce, they are not what one would call a functional family. Because Lily and Charles are both brain surgeons with full-blown careers, they do not have much time left for their only child, Denny. Both of them are unemotional, logical types of people who have a hard time relating to a child, especially one as emotionally driven as Denny, who eventually becomes an actress.
A third adult makes up this family unit: Maureen, an answering service hired by Denny's parents. While originally hired because of her expertise with the medical profession, she basically ends up helping to run the family from her home office by reminding the adults of appointments and scheduling everything from flights to taxis and anything in between. Maureen ends up being the surrogate parent Denny needs, and it is Maureen whom Denny seeks out when she needs to talk. Unfortunately, Denny’s parents are oblivious to her needs, are never there for her when she needs them.
There are multiple themes, but what stands out for me is how this family functions - or doesn't function - throughout the span of the book. In part one, Denny is always disappointed when her parents don't show up at school plays, for example, but she always moves on. She doesn’t visibly show how upset she is with these disappointments, because she knows that her parents are too busy for her. The hurt lies deep down inside her, and while in part one of the novel she isn’t seen vocalizing her hurt, it becomes apparent in part two how her parents’ neglect make her feel. It does seem that their negligence does (of course) shape Denny into who she becomes later in life. She doesn't have a lot of friends as a child and is considered one of the class outcasts. If it weren't for Maureen’s guidance and nurturing, Denny would probably have ended up being a totally different human being.
The introduction of Maureen, who finds she is becoming an agoraphobe due to a painful experience she had with a person of the opposite sex, is what keeps Denny and her pseudo-family from falling apart. Maureen has her own story to tell, as her life weaves in and out of Denny’s from childhood to maturity.
Part one also sets up the relationship of Lily and Phil (a much younger man). Lily meets Phil through connections with her work and never plans on having a serious relationship with him. It is through a fling on board an airplane that starts the ball rolling, with Lily becoming pregnant at a very inopportune time in her life. She’s divorced, busy with her career, and hardly has time for her own daughter. It's a secret she keeps to herself, until she finds herself in a car accident, which leads to some very strange behavior from Lily.
In part two, Denny is on her way to becoming an actress and has just gotten a call to interview with director Robert Altman. She feels this will be her big break. In the meantime, Phil and Lily, who are now married, are getting ready to move to New York. It's a big move – they had been living in the same home that Denny grew up in, in the small town of Bexler, Ohio. This home contains her earliest memories, and now the memories were being packed or sold at a garage sale. Denny can only think about the acting job and does not really connect with Lily. However, something happens between Phil and Denny that changes their relationship, bringing them closer as stepfather and daughter.
In part three, Denny is now a playwright and working on her first play. She's almost forty, her mother is in her sixties, and there are again many changes in store for all of them. Denny hasn't gotten her big break yet, but she keeps on trying. Her mother is at the age where retirement looms, but she is fighting it. Lily is worried about her marriage, since she knows that her husband Phil must finally see her as an old woman, and is also worried about her job. There is also a child in Denny's life, and it's not her own.
What to Keep is a highly entertaining book that kept me fascinated from start to finish. It is not a traditionally written book but a story that takes three different timeframes to show the evolution of one person, Denny Roman, and those closest to her, her family. It is interesting to see their growth and what major life events shaped their lives over time. While I didn't find myself particularly attached to any of the characters, except possibly Maureen and her son and Luke, I am glad I got to read this novel. Spanning several decades in only two hundred ninety pages, it is witty, funny, and very intelligent. What to Keep is definitely not a light read but a book that will make one ponder the dynamics of family, friends, and how one goes from childhood to adulthood. Rachel Cline is an author to keep an eye on, for she certainly has a winner with her debut.