Sarah Zarr & Tara Altebrando – Roomies

zarraltebrando-roomiesIt’s time to meet your new roomie.

When East Coast native Elizabeth receives her freshman-year roommate assignment, she shoots off an e-mail to coordinate the basics: television, microwave, mini-fridge. That first note to San Franciscan Lauren sparks a series of e-mails that alters the landscape of each girl’s summer — and raises questions about how two girls who are so different will ever share a dorm room.

As the countdown to college begins, life at home becomes increasingly complex. With family relationships and childhood friendships strained by change, it suddenly seems that the only people Elizabeth and Lauren can rely on are the complicated new boys in their lives . . . and each other. Even though they’ve never met.

I downloaded Roomies from Netgalley on a whim. It was a Read Now offer and it sounded fun and I thought “Why not?” And I’m so glad I did because I had an absolute blast with it. The book had a light and easy tone, even while dealing with some pretty fundamental questions everyone goes through when transitioning from secondary school to beyond. It tackles several big issues: interracial dating, losing your virginity, under-age drinking – in perhaps a slightly too casual manner – and letting go and growing up. It generally did so in quite a graceful manner and I was sorry to finish the story. 

What made this book work so well, were the different perspectives. EB’s and Lauren’s voices are distinct and they are both hilarious, especially EB. Her somewhat understated and dry wit made never failed to draw a chuckle. The self-mocking tone really spoke to me, such as when she litters an email updating Lauren about what is going on with references to the soap operas they both used to watch. The authors also managed to avoid having one story arc outshine the other, the interleaving of EB’s and Lauren’s chapters never came as an unwelcome break away from one or the other and I can’t say I had a favourite between the two.

The girls are very, very different. EB is a New Jersey native, comes from a single parent family, as her dad came out as gay and left her and her mum and moved to San Francisco, and is an only child. So moving to Berkeley will mean moving across the country and leaving everything and everyone behind. Lauren on the other hand was born and raised in San Francisco and will only be moving across the bay come the fall. She also comes from a stable home with five siblings. Yet they wrestle with similar questions especially as it concerns their changing relationships, with their parents and siblings, with their best friends, with their (not yet) boyfriends and, perhaps most importantly, with themselves. Because leaving home is a time of change, a chance to re-invent yourself and discard behaviours and patterns you’ve been pushed into at home. Both girls have to ask themselves who they want to become the start of college and what they think is important in life.

Both EB and Lauren are provided with a cast of characters that challenge them and make them think by the authors and I think there aren’t really any throw-away characters in the novel; they all have a function in making the girls grow. I adored Lauren’s parents and her family, even if I also felt for Lauren as she effectively was a third parent to her much younger siblings. On the other hand, I felt far less well-disposed towards EB’s mum who seemed a little distant and not that much of a good role-model for her daughter. The different ways in which the relationships with their respective best friends played out felt genuine and were sometimes heart-breaking, but were true to the nature of friendships and how they can run their course.

Each girl also falls in love over the course of the summer. Their experiences are quite different and yet similar as they both fall hard and deeply in love. What I really liked about the depictions of these developing relationships how well they evoked the euphoria and angst of falling in love and the accompanying butterflies and stomach aches. It put a smile on my face and I found myself rooting for both couples to make it past the summer.

Roomies made me think back to the period when I left home and while I was more like EB than Lauren in that I couldn’t wait to get away, the scenes that made me well up were those between Lauren and her mum, which voiced the difficulties of change and letting go beautifully. It made me remember the excitement and fear of starting over and how life will always catch you by surprise and take you places you hadn’t expected. Beyond anything I’ve written above, Roomies is the story of how a friendship is born and how painful that birth can be. The book is a funny, effortless read; great for a lazy weekend or a holiday that won’t just make you laugh, but will probably draw some tears as well. Roomies will be released just in time for the Holidays on Christmas Eve.

This book was provided for review by the publisher.