Review: Roomies

Roomies by Sara Zarr and Tara Altebrando. Little, Brown Books for Young Readers. 2013. Reviewed from ARC.

The Plot: It’s the summer after high school graduation, and EB and Lauren are both looking forward to college.

EB is looking forward to leaving her small New Jersey beach town, her mother, her circle of friends and their expectations.

Lauren isn’t planning on going far from her San Francisco home, but she is still going to live at college. Leaving loving parents and many younger brothers and sisters, she looks forward to privacy.

Which is why Lauren requested a single.

Instead, she gets a roommate: EB.

Over the course of the summer, EB and Lauren exchange emails, gradually getting to learn more about each other — and themselves.

The Good: This is the exact type of book I wanted to read in high school, wondering and worrying about college.

Roomies is told from the points of view of both EB and Lauren, both what they’re thinking and the emails they exchange. There are misunderstandings — Lauren at first believes that EB is more well off than she is. EB thinks Lauren’s delays in response are personal. They not only grow to know each other better, but also to be more honest. The honesty is two-fold: yes, being more honest and real with each other in their emails, but also being more honest and real with themselves.

It’s not that either EB or Lauren have been lying to themselves; it’s that they are both still growing, both still becoming.

For EB, it means that the tight group of friends she has is suddenly too tight. They boy she is dating no longer feels right. She feels distant from her best friend. She meets a new boy, and that brings another level of complication. Her mother is busy with her own life. EB knows she is about to leave her town to start her own life at college; she just didn’t realize how emotionally she’d begin leaving before leaving.

For Lauren, her life has been tied up in her family. Yes, there’s been school and she’s been serious about her studies, enough to win a scholarship. And she has a best friend. But she hasn’t been someone going to parties; when she’s not working, she’s helping to take care of her younger brothers and sisters. Forget privacy; Lauren has rarely had time to think about herself, let alone be by herself. Lauren had thought college would be when she was free to think of herself, and she surprises herself by falling for a boy. Suddenly, Lauren’s life isn’t as simple as it had been.

I love how Roomies is three stories: EB’s story, Lauren’s story, and the story of the two of them beginning to forge a relationship. As a reader, we can see the bigger story that neither of them can see, and that is part of the fun. And “fun” includes some cringing, when someone says something thoughtlessly cruel or judgmental and just not really meaning it, or meaning how it was taken.

One other thing, which is a bit funny: EB is from New Jersey. A beach town. Called Point Pleasant. Have I mentioned that my family is from the Jersey shore? A town called . . . . Point Pleasant. I KNOW. I actually went “oh no” when I read this, because it’s a bit tough to read (or watch) fiction set in a place you know. (See: viewing of the TV series, Point Pleasant.) The good news: no one pumps their own gas! Better news: there are just enough real and accurate details to give one the flavor of the town, without being overwhelmed by unnecessary details. (Oh, and in case you were wondering…. EB doesn’t say whether it’s the Beach or the Borough.) (About five of you got that.) (No, I didn’t graduate from either Pt Beach or Pt Borough but my mom taught at the Beach.)

Other things I liked about Roomies: how race is talked about. Both EB and Lauren are white; the boy Lauren is interested in is black. This isn’t an issue, but it is something that is talked about. The parents have their own lives, in different ways. Lauren has five younger siblings, the eldest who is only six, and her parents are always tired or stretched for money. They are trying, and want what is best for Lauren, but, they are tired. And busy. Meanwhile, EB and her mother have been on their own since her father left the family. He left her mother for another man; but he also left EB, moving across the country to start a new life that didn’t include her. Her mother has made some choices about who she dates that seem rooted in her own insecurities and loneliness. All of these adult issues are always part of the proper background of EB’s and Lauren’s stories, shaping the lives of their daughters, but doing so without overwhelming or taking over.

Even though Roomies ended just as college began, this felt very much like a college story because it’s about EB and Lauren beginning to move away from their high school selves. It captures that mix of wanting to leave and not wanting to leave; wanting independence and fearing it. And figuring out just what independence means. Because of that (and, well, because Pt. Pleasant!) this is a Favorite Book Read in 2014.

Other reviews: StackedBook Brats; Nerdy Book Club; Cite Something.

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