Rachel Cline: books: What to Keep

What to Keep


“This witty and affecting novel tells its story glancingly, its progress only gradually revealing the truth at its center: that accidents, half-choices, and patched-together solutions can lead us, as surely as their opposites, exactly where we need to go.”
Ann Packer, author of The View from
Clausen's Pier

“A sweet melody played with hipness and humor, What to Keep shows how life shoves us forward whether we're ready to go or not. The silent, courageous, and reasoned decisions made by the women in this book prove, once again, who the real heroes of ordinarily life are.”
James McBride, author of The Color of Water

“Intelligent, and entirely original, this story dramatizes and makes plain sense of the complex formations of what we call family, rendering the nuances of each character with an honesty that reaches straight to the reader's heart.”
Elizabeth Strout, author of Amy and Isabelle



Rachel Cline's "What to Keep" is another novel about parental neglect and a daughter coming to terms with her own responsibilities to herself and others, an appraisal, naturally, that includes her own version of motherhood. The book is divided into thirds, taking place when the narrator is 12, 26 and 36. Denny Roman is a precocious, lonely girl whose neuroscientist parents, Charles and Lily, are distant and preoccupied: "No one identifies their six-year-old girl's willfulness as 'passion' but Charles and Lily did recognize in Denny an emotional immediacy that was genuine, relentless and entirely new to both of them." ...more

L.A. Times Book Review

Rachel CLINE is a recovering screenwriter, and her debut novel -- about a girl from Columbus, Ohio, who goes to Hollywood to make it as an actress and eventually winds up in New York trying to make it as a playwright -- zings along with cinematic flair. What's surprising, though, is just how probing this story is, as it unfolds in triptych (1976, 1990, 2000) and illuminates the shadowy interstices of family life....more


Cline's realistic tale of a drama queen slowly coming of age is one to keep. (3 1/2 stars)

This first novel visits the delightful Denny Roman at three points in her life. At 12, she is a precocious Ohio kid with absentee parents who does a surprise star turn in the school play. Fourteen years later, Denny, now an aspiring Hollywood actress, returns to Ohio to help her distant mother and young stepfather clear out her childhood bedroom. Finally, a decade after that, she is an intense New York playwright with a burgeoning career but a lackluster love life....more

Entertainment Weekly: Playing for Keeps

In her striking debut, What to Keep, Rachel Cline creates chick lit for smarties.

The typical literary heroine of today performs extreme, often unflattering acrobatics to get our attention and sympathy. Maybe because of competition from racy tell-all memoirists, novelists no longer feel it's enough to introduce a thoughtful, dignified grown-up female with a few life-size problems. Instead, we get frazzled little girls dating Mr. Wrong and bingeing on Haagen-Dazs to prove how vulnerable and lovable they are. We're treated to sagas of childhood sexual abuse and ever more extravagant domestic and romantic crises. One of the chief delights of Rachel Cline's lovely, understated debut is her smart, self-respecting heroine Denny Roman, who never clamors for attention. And thereby earns it...more

San Diego Union Tribune

"If everyone just turns out like their mother, then what's the rat's ass point?"

Rachel Cline did not write that pithy gem, but she might as well have. The sentiment (taken from Elizabeth Strout's similarly themed novel "Amy and Isabelle") serves as the driving force behind "What to Keep," Cline's impressive debut....more


A LIFE IN THREE ACTS: The literary landscape is littered with novels narrated by precociously wise "old souls" in thrift-shop chic and Doc Martens-brainy girls who somehow endure and thrive despite their inexplicably dim-witted and self-destructive parentage. Rachel Cline puts ...more

Library Journal

First novelist Cline, a screenwriter by trade, offers a charming look at the different combinations of people who can make up a family. Divided into three sections, the story follows the life of Denny Roman, a daughter of brilliantbut socially dysfunctional parents, and her relationship with Maureen, the family's de facto secretary, who teaches Denny how to accept the good parts of herself and her parents and not obsess over the bad....more

Kirkus Reviews

A star is assigned to books of unusual merit, determined by the editors of Kirkus Reviews.

Okay, so she's 37 in 2000 and tentatively moving into adulthood just as her first full-length play opens successfully off-Broadway. But Denny had a lot of childhood grievances to get over, starting with her parents' divorce when she was ten and the fact that her mother Lily, though loving, is so wrapped up in her medical research that she tends to miss things like Denny's understudy-becomes-star turn as Lola in her suburban Ohio high-school production of Damn Yankees. Luckily, even as early as that event back in 1976, Denny has found a second mother...more


In her smart and witty first novel, Cline hones in on three pivotal periods in the life of Denny Roman. We first see her as a seventh-grader in 1976 in Columbus, Ohio, still reeling from her parents' divorce and lashing out at the taunts of schoolmates with fearless and lacerating humor....more

Publisher's Weekly

A wry, ironic voice narrates this sharply observed and paradoxically tender first novel, which reveals Denny Roman at three pivotal moments in her life. In Columbus, Ohio, in 1976, 12-year-old Denny essentially mothers herself, since her divorced mother, Lily, is more preoccupied with her neurological research than with the details of maternal care....more