Mary E. Pearson's A Room on Lorelei Street is gripping and well-written, a bleak story with streaks of hope. A Room on Lorelei Street is the story of Zoe, a 17-year-old girl burdened by a difficult family. Her father is dead, under somewhat mysterious circumstances, and her mother pretty much lives inside the bottle. Her beloved younger brother has been sent away to live with a more stable aunt and uncle, who have no room for Zoe, while Zoe is left to care for her irresponsible and needy mother.
One day Zoe sees a sign advertising a room for rent in a gracious home on Lorelei Street. She is unable to resist the lure of getting away from her mother, and of being in a place that's all her own, clean and quiet and safe. She rents the room (more of a studio apartment) from the quirky but kind Opal, and finds it everything she has dreamed of. However the ties of family and guilt are not so easy to break, and Zoe struggles with continuing demands from her family. She also struggles financially, not really able to afford living on her own while working part time while attending high school. But she's not willing to go back, either.
This book made me think about all of the things that I took for granted growing up: clean clothes, abundant food, parents to attend any plays or recitals that I was in, siblings who lived in the same house. Zoe is painfully in need of someone to care about her, to put her needs first, to be what family is supposed to be. When Opal attends one of her tennis matches and cheers for her, it brings tears to Zoe's eyes. She considers it the nicest thing that anyone has ever done for her. How sad is that? How many kids are there who have no one to care about them?
The ways in which Zoe acts out are not surprising, given her background, and are treated matter-of-factly by the author. The looming menace of what she will or won't do to earn money to afford her Lorelei Street haven is more disturbing. Toward the end of the book, things get increasingly difficult for Zoe, and the fragile ties tethering her to the community snap one by one. What keeps Zoe going are a few precious memories of her father's belief in her potential, and her own unquenchable sense of possibility.
Zoe is a strong character, a teenage girl facing situations far beyond her years. Her landlady, Opal, is delightful, glowing with enthusiasm, despite the hardships in her life. The small, depressed town of Ruby, Texas is almost a character in the book, too. Ruby is beaten down and insular, without much economic potential, but the stars still shine overhead. And there are still beautiful rooms on Lorelei Street.
This is a book that will make you think. About the connections between people. About what kids need from their parents. About what makes some people keep going, while others give up. About where responsibilities to family end, and responsibility to self beings. Mary Pearson's writing is spare and elegant, with just enough detail to make the scenes pictured painfully clear. I think that it will particularly resonate with teenagers, male or female, struggling to find their place in the world.
A Room on Lorelei Street won the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators Golden Kite Award for fiction published in 2005. This is the only major children's book award given by the writer's peers.
© 2009 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved.