Roomies by Sara Zarr & Tara Altebrando
Genre: YA Contemporary
Publisher: Little, Brown Books for Young Readers
Release date: December 24 2013
Source: eARC via NetGalley
In a word: A sweet story about leaving home for the first time, filled with unexpected depth and emotion, with characters that make us remember how important friends and family truly are.
I should break up with him, I know. Because we are not going to have sex. Because I don’t feel that way about him anymore, if I ever did. But it hardly seems worth the effort when college can do the breaking up for me. The path of least resistance is a path I know well, having trod it in circles around my mother for years.
I started Roomies thinking it was going to be a light and funny story about two girls going off to college, and I was pleasantly surprised to discover it was much more than that. Sara Zarr and Tara Altebrando have captured the excitement and uncertainty of leaving home for the first time, and all the emotions that swirl around this important milestone in life. It took me back (way back!) to my own time as a freshman in college, and reminded me of how I felt at the time: impatient to finally be leaving the small town I had been born in, excited to be starting my new life, and nervous about having to live with a stranger. For someone who rarely takes the time to read contemporary fiction these days, I was happy to discover that there are contemporaries out there that I enjoy. Roomies is a great example of a story that honestly portrays what teens are going through during this uncomfortable transition time in their lives.
Lauren and Elizabeth (or EB, as she fondly refers to herself) have both been accepted to UC Berkeley and have just discovered, through an email from the housing department, that they are going to be roommates. Lauren lives in nearby San Francisco in a large family with five brothers and sisters—the youngest is a baby!—and EB lives on the other side of the country in New Jersey. Six weeks before school starts, the two begin a tentative email correspondence, and slowly begin to share their lives with each other, as well as making practical decisions about what to bring with them. As the end of summer draws nearer, their “friendship” inevitably breaks down over misunderstandings and poorly worded emails. Will they end up roommates after all? Or has too much damage been done? Lauren and EB will need the help of their families and friends to get through these last few weeks before their lives change forever.
One of my favorite things about Roomies was how different Lauren and EB are, and yet they have so much in common. I loved Lauren’s crazy, messy and crowded life living in a family of eight. Lauren’s parents expect her to practically help raise her very young siblings, a job that she both loves and loathes. Some of the more poignant moments in the story take place when Lauren realizes that very soon she won’t get to see her little sisters P.J. and Gertie on a daily basis. The tug-of-war that goes on in her head felt very real: on the one hand she can’t wait to get out of that house! But on the other, what will happen when she’s no longer needed to take care of her brothers and sisters?
EB’s situation is very different—she’s an only child who lives with her single mother—but she’s also worried about leaving her mother, even though she constantly complains about her. EB has the added stress of moving clear across the country, which is made even more awkward because her estranged father lives in San Francisco. The authors give each character hurdles to jump over on their way to happiness, and I loved the fact that not everything wraps up neatly in the end.
Several weighty topics are tackled, like biracial relationships and infidelity, but they don’t overpower the heartwarming core of the story. Lauren and EB have so many choices to make before they go away to college—whether or not to have sex, break up with their boyfriends, and even banal decisions like what to bring with them from home—and even though they don’t always choose what’s best, their choices somehow felt authentic and believable. The alternating chapters between the girls worked well, and including their emails to each other was a great device that shows how easy it is to misunderstand someone over the internet.
A couple of things didn’t quite work for me. I found the voices of Lauren and EB to be almost identical, and I did have trouble at times keeping track of which girl I was reading about. This is especially surprising because two authors wrote this story, and you would think it would be easy to tell their voices apart. I also question the publisher’s decision to release Roomies in the wintertime, since it clearly takes place over the summer and is filled with girls in bikinis, surfing and beach parties.
But these are only small complaints, and shouldn’t deter anyone from reading this book. Roomies is full of heart and has many sweet moments between friends and family that made me smile. And the ending? One of the most perfect endings I’ve ever read. Let’s just say I love it when an author knows when to stop writing. If you’re in the mood for a story that celebrates all types of relationships, in all their confusing, messy and wonderful glory, Roomies should be next on your list.
Big thanks to the publisher for supplying a review copy.
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