Roomies is the story of the summer before college, told from the alternating perspective of two future roommates. Elizabeth, or EB, lives in New Jersey with her single mother, and looks forward to traveling across the country to UC Berkeley at the end of August. Lauren, or Lo, lives in San Francisco, and worries about how her parents will cope with her five much younger siblings once she has moved across the Bay. The two young women get to know one another slowly, with fits and starts, via email throughout the summer. The entire book is not told in email, though - details about the girls' lives are filled in via alternating first-person chapters.
Although both Lauren and Elizabeth have summer relationships with boys, I liked that the core relationship that Roomies is exploring is that of the two future roommates. The romances are both nice (one inter-racial, one inter-socioeconomic-status), but neither demonstrates much conflict. Authors Sara Zarr and Tara Altebrando reserve that for EB and Lo's relationship. The alternating viewpoints allow the reader to glimpse each girl from the outside, and their voices are quite distinct. The digital version that I read also used a much larger font for one of the viewpoints, which helped, too. I never had that problem of wondering which character I was reading about (something I frequently notice in first-person multiple-narrator stories).
I also liked the authors' choice to set this book during the summer before college. This is a such a pivotal time for teens - preparing to leave family and high school friends, uncertain about the future - or at least it was for me. I'm thrilled to find another novel that takes this on. (Roomies could paid well with Justina Chen's Return to Me).
Another aspect of Roomies that I appreciated was that the authors weren't afraid to take on discussions about race and sexual preference. Elizabeth's long-absent father is gay, while Lauren's simmering relationship is with a boy who is black (as she is not). More to the point, Lauren and Elizabeth discuss these things - Elizabeth's awkward feelings about having a gay dad, and the uncertainty that Lauren feels in dating someone black (Keyon), because this is new for her. Here's a quote:
"Race. It's so tricky, even though we're all supposedly enlightened and color-blind. I don't want it to be a Thing. But it kind of is a Thing, isn't it?" (Lauren, describing her first visit to Keyon's house)
Both Lauren's and Keyon's parents are well-meaning but also awkward. All in all, I found this refreshing.
I did find some of the text (mostly from Lauren) a little ... deliberately profound. Like this:
"As much as I love to imagine being alone in an orderly lab, I also know you can't stay in there forever and expect to do good work. Life is one of those experiments meant to be conducted in a stimulating, messy environment."
But that's a minor quibble from an adult reader. The style of writing will probably work well for actual teens who are thinking about heading off to college, and all of the change that this implies.
Roommates getting to know one another over the summer before college is the perfect vehicle for teen self-exploration. Roomies is a relatively light take on relationships with friends, boyfriends, and, of course, roommates. There is some adult behavior discussed (including sex), though nothing described in detail. This is still YA, not new adult, in other words, but I don't see it having much interest for kids who aren't yet in high school. For kids (mainly girls) approaching the end of high school, though, Roomies would make a great gift.
Publisher: Little, Brown Books for Young Readers (@LBKids)
Publication Date: December 24, 2013
Source of Book: Advance digital review copy from the publisher
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