I’m going to use the word ‘charming’ a lot to describe Serious Moonlight. Mostly because ‘charming’ perfectly describes how the book combines a cute first love story, a coming of age tale, a mystery and a character study into a single, tight package.
Eighteen-year-old narcoleptic bookworm and mystery lover Birdie Lindberg loves the Moonlight Diner in Seattle, Washington for good reason; she lived part of her childhood in the two rooms above the restaurant with her late mother and her feisty, gossipy, loving Aunt-in-spirit if not by blood Mona Rivera. The two women dropped out of high school together to raise Birdie with the help of Ms. Patty, the Moonlight’s owner, until Birdie’s mother passed away when Birdie was ten. Subsequently, Birdie moved in with her much more conservative grandparents, but with her grandmother now gone too, her grandfather urges timid Birdie to spread her wings and commute from their island home in Eagle Harbor to Seattle for the summer.
After being homeschooled and living in her small island home with her grandparents during her youth, Birdie is very introverted. The closest she’s come to love is a flirtation with a nineteen-year-old magician who interviewed Birdie for a part-time library job. He invited her out on a date right afterwards, but instead they shared a single rain-soaked sexual encounter in his car. Birdie panicked and bolted afterwards and has had regretted doing so ever since. She doesn’t even know the guy’s name, but his total silence leaves her to presume she’s lost him along with the part-time job opportunity he represented.
So instead of sorting books or washing dishes all summer, Birdie’s taken a job at the historic and luxurious Cascadia Hotel as their new night auditor, where she lets her imagination run wild – after all, anything can happen in a place like that.
And indeed, anything can and does happen at the Cascadia. When Birdie isn’t busy keeping a look-out for the animal rights protesters who claim the hotel is holding its signature octopus hostage and killing the goldfish they use in their rent-a-fish program, she’s looking out for fifth-floorers – folks who have exclusive memberships, dwell in the most expensive part of the hotel and who are likely famous – or bantering with the bellboys. When the hotel’s van driver appears, it turns out he’s the movie-loving, handsome, chatty and long-haired apprentice carpenter Daniel Aoki, the man to whom she gave her virginity.
Birdie is somewhat abashed and not a little intrigued by his presence. Fortunately, Daniel isn’t willing to let their one-car-stand remain a one-car stand – he even placed a personals ad in an attempt at finding Bridie after she ran off. But things are awkward, and she chooses to avoid him – until Daniel thinks he spies famous mystery author Raymond Darke entering the hotel on a regular basis, checking in for just an hour every week. Daniel and Birdie soon team up to figure out if Drake is truly the person they’re seeing. Clue by clue and bit by bit, Daniel and Birdie begin to fall a little bit more for one another as the days pass by, as the mystery of Raymond Darke lingers over the whole picture. Might he be researching a mystery that’s long hung over the hotel – the murder of a long-dead briefly-famous 1930s startlet, whose death in a fifth floor suite has remained an unsolved crime?
There are a lot of positive points about Serious Moonlight. Daniel and Birdie’s romance is conducted in a playful push-pull manner and is incredibly charming, Birdie is a realistic introvert and Daniel has been through some serious things that give him a natural emotional hardness that isn’t too stiff to bend. They suit one another well, and they make a relatable couple.
The book, between its lighter and more romantic moments, covers a lot of heavy terrain; Daniel is deaf in one ear thanks to an attempt at replicating a Houdini trick as a kid, has no father, deals with casual racism attached to his Japanese heritage and has survived a suicide attempt; Birdie must overcome her feelings about having, in her mind, caused her grandmother’s death, her fear that her sheltered childhood makes her a freak, abandonment issues and has a narcoleptic grandfather who suffers from injuries incurred in a boating accident. Her own narcolepsy poses a real danger to her life, and the author has clearly spent time researching the condition and its treatment.
As a result of all of this drama, Daniel and Birdie’s romance is realistically clumsy and awkward. When Birdie finds out about Daniel’s attempted suicide, she takes his mental health and wellbeing onto her shoulders because of her own fear of being abandoned, and the book rightfully points out that this is a bad choice.
The major supporting characters are great. I liked Birdie’s sea-loving grandfather and Daniel’s cynical mother, Cherry, an ex-magician’s assistant who wanted to be an actress but has settled for teaching dance. I mostly liked Mona, but Mona is…a little overinvested in Birdie’s teenage romance and is why I couldn’t rate the book more highly. She keeps trying to pump Birdie for details of her first sexual encounter and it feels creepy and weird; she‘s so excited about the whole situation, and even though this is the girl she basically raised as a daughter, she won’t stop talking about how hot Birdie’s prospective boyfriend is. For every wise bit of life advice Mona gives Birdie, there’s a setback; she comes off as the most voyeuristic mother figure since Shirley Knight watched Brooke Shields and Martin Hewitt roll around in Endless Love. The woman is thirty-five, and I get that she’s the whimsical out-there type; a costume-loving ‘cool aunt’ type who doesn’t care for rules, but the two of them act more like big sister/little sister around one another. But I did enjoy a subplot involving her very straitlaced, golf-loving ex’s attempt at wooing her.
The mystery itself has a surprising twist – but one that is pretty much easily understood if you’re familiar with Ebert’s Law of Conservations of Character (any main character whose purpose is not readily apparent must be more important than he or she seems.) It did leave me guessing right up to the last page, and for that I have to give it a lot of credit. It also requires Daniel to lie to Birdie to a degree, which is addressed, but lets him off the hook just a hair too easily.
Only a few blemishes knock Serious Moonlight down a few pegs, but ultimately it earns a recommendation – well worth reading, but with a few bruises on the cherry on top of its slice of pie.
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