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Roomies by Sara Zarr and Tara Altebrando

February 7th, 2014 (05:01 pm)
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In New Jersey, recent high school graduate Elizabeth (known to friends as EB) receives an email from her soon-to-be-college with her roommate assignment and contact information. She quickly drafts an email to her future roomie, Lauren, to introduce herself.

Across the country in San Francisco, surrounded by her endlessly energetic little brothers and sisters, Lauren gets the email and realizes her request for a single room has been denied. Having spent so many years sharing a room with her younger siblings, she really wanted a place all to herself, so she's initially upset. But she sends a cordial response to EB (which she thinks of like "Ebb"), thinking that's about it for now.

Over the course of the summer, two girls continue to exchange emails as they deal with summer jobs, old friends, new boyfriends, and family drama. They share stories about their lives and express their oscillating concern and excitement about leaving their families, leaving their childhood homes, and starting college in a new place. Told in first-person narrative in alternating chapters, with emails sprinkled in (including messages they purposely don't send, as well as a few they send accidentally or otherwise), this novel wonderfully captures modern communication without making it feel out-of-place or like it's riding on a trend; where a book fifty years ago would have an exchange of letters with postage stamps, this has emails with timestamps, while the main familiar narrative fiction form is still the focus.

ROOMIES captures the transition time between high school and college so very well that I believe it will appeal to adult readers as well as generations to come. The voices are clear and distinct, with Zarr writing for Lauren and Altebrando writing for EB. I have faithfully followed each of the authors since their debut novels and very much enjoy their individual styles, so it was a treat to read this collaboration and see how their characters interacted and responded to one another.

The protagonists are strikingly different: EB is an only child raised by a mother who frequently goes out on dates, while Lauren loves her huge family, but aches for some peace and quiet once in a while. EB's father left the family when she was young and moved across the country to San Francisco, so she hopes they'll reconnect when she moves there. Lauren already lives near enough to UC Berkeley that she knows she can easily visit her family and friends during the college years.

Both of the girls are employed and are hard workers, driven, with goals for the future and good heads on their shoulders. That's not to say they can't be impulsive or make rash decisions - and that has nothing to do with the fact that they are teenagers, but rather that they are well-drawn, realistic characters with levels and layers, influenced for better or worse by the people around them and the situations they are put in.

When the book begins, EB has a boyfriend, but things aren't clicking with them. Then she meets Mark, a sweet guy who clicks with her immediately. Meanwhile, Lauren bonds with Keyon, who works with her at his dad's sandwich shop. (Keyon is easily my favorite supporting character, along with Lauren's parents. There's a scene between Lauren and her father that is absolutely wonderful. I read that scene three times.) The book begins in June, follows the girls through August, and ends at the most absolutely perfect moment. Each girl goes through her fair share of headache and changes that summer, a summer that they'll never forget.

No matter what time of year it is or what your living situation is, ROOMIES is a great read. I bet they'll be more than one character you click with, too.

Related posts at Bildungsroman:
Booklist: Transition Times
Booklist: Multiple Narrators
Booklist: Tough Issues for Teens
Book Review: Story of a Girl by Sara Zarr
Book Review: Sweethearts by Sara Zarr
Readergirlz Roundtable: Sweethearts by Sara Zarr
Interview: Sara Zarr
Book Review: The Pursuit of Happiness by Tara Altebrando
Book Review: What Happens Here by Tara Altebrando
Book Review: Love Will Tear Us Apart by Tara Altebrando (as Tara McCarthy)
Book Review: Dreamland Social Club by Tara Altebrando
Review: The Best Night of Your (Pathetic) Life by Tara Altebrando
Interview: Tara Altebrando (March 2006)
Interview: Tara Altebrando (August 2006)
Interview: Tara Altebrando (November 2012)