Book Review: Roomies by Sara Zarr & Tara Altebrando
Before I dig into my review of Roomies, a personal aside. And if you’re not interested in my rambling thoughts of yesteryear, jump ahead two paragraphs! Really, I won’t mind.
It seems like eons ago that I received my freshman roommate assignment from campus housing, way back when as I was graduating from high school and looking forward to the next chapter in my life. My roomie-to-be had a name that made me think of someone upbeat and friendly: Juliet, from somewhere in Pennsylvania. We exchanged brief letters (I found out she preferred to go by Julie), and it seemed like we’d hit it off, or at the very least, like each other enough to live together successfully.
But then, a few weeks later, another letter: Julie and her friend from home had decided to live together after all. Bummer. I was then assigned a new roommate, Joanne from Brooklyn, daughter of a cardiologist, who spent most of her initial letter to me telling me all about her boyfriend Henry (but call him Henri), who was gorgeous and a model. Uh oh. Alarm bells ringing. And for good reason: the term “roommate from hell” could have been coined especially for Joanne. I won’t bore you with the agony of a year’s worth of horrible incidents. And to add insult to injury, I later met my almost-roommate Julie in chemistry class, and she was sweet as could be. Meanwhile, the best thing I can say about Joanne is that she was so despicable that I spent almost zero time in my dorm room, which led to my becoming close with someone in the next dorm, who in turn introduced me to another of her friends… and those two became lifelong friends of mine. So, happy outcome, I suppose, but still… drama! Freshman year turmoil! Dorm dismay!
It’s been a long time since I thought about the saga of Julie and Joanne — but it all came back to me in vivid color as soon as I started reading Roomies.
In this delightful new young adult novel, two girls from opposite worlds meet through the magic of the UC Berkeley housing office. Over the course of the summer between high school and college, Elizabeth and Lauren get to know each other through emails, exchanging greetings tentatively at first and slowly building up trust and connection until they’re practically soulmates — but is it real? How much can you really get to know someone by way of a computer screen? How do you know what someone’s like if you’ve never met them, never even heard their voice?
From the outset, the girls seem too dissimilar to seem likely as friends. Elizabeth is a middle class girl from New Jersey, who loves the beach, loves gardening, has a boyfriend she’s not crazy about, and has lived alone with her mom ever since her dad came out and moved (stereotype of stereotypes) to San Francisco. Now EB, as she’s known to her friends, is left counting the days until she sets off on her big move cross-country, dealing with her unable-to-face-reality mom and wishing she weren’t so alone. Lauren, on the other hand, is never alone. Lauren has five younger siblings, all under the age of six, and this huge mess of a family lives in a cramped house in San Francisco, always tight on money, always chaotic. Lauren works two jobs and got a full scholarship to Berkeley to study biochem, and dreams of having quiet time to herself. She did not want a roommate at all, and is not best pleased to hear from EB (whom she thinks of as Ebb) with a “hi, roomie!” email.
Told in alternating chapters and with alternating voices, Roomies takes us along for the ride as Lauren and Elizabeth slowly open up to one another while dealing with the myriad of challenges, frustrations, joys, and sorrows of the eventful summer between high school and college. Both girls navigate a relationship with a hometown best friend, unsure of how that friendship will change or even if it will last. And both girls find romance when least expected, only further complicating the delicate and difficult business of saying good-bye to home and childhood and moving into the next phase of their lives.
The summer navigated in Roomies is wonderful in many ways, but each girl faces her own set of worries and doubts as the college days loom. Will she be able to stand on her own feet? Will the family left behind manage without her? How will she know she’s ready? And what if she’s not?
He leads me out the other side of the house, and there is something about his pulling me forward that feels so incredible. Because I wish that I were being guided a bit more through life, that I didn’t always feel as if I were drifting, like an untied balloon that someone didn’t even realize was slipping away.
The writing is terrific and genuine. I was completely convinced that I was getting to know two very different girls, and I appreciated how the authors made each voice unique and recognizable. Using the motif of first-person narration punctuated by emails, each chapter gives us a view into the girls’ inner lives and deepest thoughts. The email is a brilliant device for showing just how easy it is to misunderstand, and how imperfect a medium the written word can be. Throughout the summer, each girl misinterprets the emails of the other, so as they take baby steps forward in their relationship, a simple phrase or comment can start a chain reaction of anger or hurt. How could she say that? Why would she rub her happiness in my face? Why doesn’t she sympathize? Why is it all about her? Each girl writes with the best of intentions, but as the move-in date nears, their communication spirals out of control, with hurt layered upon hurt, until each is left to contemplate requesting a rooming reassignment before they even get to Berkeley.
Little details really work. While Lauren and Elizabeth each embark on a new and exciting romance, this isn’t a glossy, fake ultra-swoony story. Even in the midst of describing a romantic moment, we’re reminded that teen moments are often snuck into the most awkward of places:
I snuggle against Keyon, with the emergency brake in my lower ribs, and we’re quiet a long time.
Sweet? Yes. Kind of uncomfortable, too, and isn’t that how it usually works?
Lauren and Elizabeth each work through their personal baggage, their family issues, their expectations, their fears. They correspond, they fight, they reconcile, and by the end of the summer, it’s time. Time to leave home, time to figure out to to hold on while at the same time marching forward. There’s a lovely moment that really encapsulates the conflicting urges to stay where it’s comfortable and familiar and to rush forward into a new exciting chapter:
…[W]e go to a booth for tickets, queue up with some others, and then find two swings side by side, close enough where we can hold hands. I kick off my flip-flops and in a minute we’re spinning. We start slowly, going round and round, but I can feel it, somewhere deep in my gut, when some new force starts to propel us out into the sky. Mark and I hold hands as long as we can but then the force is too strong and he laughs and I scream and we have no choice but to let go.
Roomies succeeds on so many levels — as a story of the beginning of a friendship, a look at family and all the different types of bonds that can exist, and an exploration of that big step from childhood to adulthood. Anyone who has ever left home to embark on a new adventure will be able to relate to the mingled excitement and fear. I’d consider this a great book for young adults approaching their own journeys, as well as for adults who made that transition themselves, whether recently or far in the past — or even from the perspective of a parent trying to support their own children as they find their way.
For myself, reading Roomies made me think of my own semi-disastrous entry into my college life — and remember how even the worst of situations ultimately led to incredibly wonderful experiences. Seeing Lauren and Elizabeth and their messy, sometimes awful and sometimes spectacular journey, I wanted to tell them to just hang in there. It’s all a part of growing up, and as Roomies illustrates so well, endings and beginnings can both contain truly amazing moments.
Author: Sara Zarr & Tara Altebrando
Publisher: Little, Brown Books for Young Readers
Publication date: To be released December 24, 2013
Genre: Young adult
Source: Review copy courtesy of Little, Brown via NetGalley