Today, I'm reviewing Roomies, the awesome YA/NA novel written by Sara Zarr and Tara Altebrando.
I loved this book, and I think you will too!
Hardcover, 288 pages
Published December 24th 2013 by Little, Brown Books for Young Readers
Synopsis (via Goodreads)
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.
National Book Award finalist Sara Zarr and acclaimed author Tara Altebrando join forces for a novel about growing up, leaving home, and getting that one fateful e-mail that assigns your college roommate.
And when I got my copy in the mail on Christmas Eve, I tore through the book. It's an amazingly funny, insightful novel about one of the most uncertain times in a person's life, and I insist all of you read it immediately.
Things that worked:
From the very first chapter, Zarr and Altebrando establish two very strong, very separate identities for Elizabeth and Lauren.
Elizabeth (a.k.a. EB) is earnest, Lauren is snarky. EB isn't afraid about professing her thoughts and aspirations to a virtual stranger, while Lauren can't quite figure out why EB feels so comfortable spilling all of this information to someone she's never met.
Zarr and Altebrando beautifully develop the separate identities for the two girls in early chapters, but also show through the course of the book, how these conflicting personalities can eventually mesh into a strong, loving and enduring friendship. I felt like I saw both girls grow up together as I read, and I love how they eventually discovered that they were more alike than they could ever imagine.
Of special note: I loved the fact that both girls were so invested in the idea of college and career choices. At the risk of sounding really old and boring, I just like it when a book emphasizes the importance of education. It's a age-old lesson, but it's worth reinforcing.
As for the secondary characters, Zarr and Altebrando have created a cast of characters that really reinforces the adage that when you're at home, it's your family that matters the most. But when you've away from home, it's friends that will always have your back. I think readers will love seeing how EB and Lauren's friends and family have helped shape their personalities, and how they react to each other.
The family factor
I'm a pretty big advocate for having more family present in YA, so I was thrilled that both EB and Lauren had their set of interesting and dysfunctional family members.
While I didn't necessarily like the reactions or choices made by the parents at times, I also think that Zarr and Altebrando's inclusion of those reactions is important. Lauren and EB have to undergo a lot of things that I'm sure a lot of average readers face - e.g. Lauren's mom hits the dating scene again in a big way; Lauren's dad is negligent - and I think the realism will connect the readers to the book more.
Like any good story that takes place during the summer, both girls have their chances at summer romances.
Without giving any spoilers away, Zarr and Altebrando not only set both girls up with smart, realistic and worthy guys, but also manages to put in a healthy does of conflict and realism into the two respective relationships.
Lauren and EB have to face real-world questions like whether their relationships are flings or have the potential for something more and whether or not the relationships can survive long-distance. Both girls also come from less-than-perfect family backgrounds, and often have to deal with those influences bleeding into their love lives.
As someone who mentors younger teens, I'm ridiculously happy at the realism presented in these two relationships, and I seriously applaud Zarr and Altebrando for writing something that I can point out to my (impressionable) teen readers.
The deeper issues, or how things aren't always perfect
While a lot of the reviews have focused on the strength of the friendship that the girls eventually develop, I loved the fact that both girls discovered and accepted that at the end of the day, they can't fix every issue in their lives.
Elizabeth and Lauren have to deal with some pretty heady issues as a result of their families and their backgrounds, and both girls come to the same conclusion to accept these situations for what they are, and how to learn and grow from that acceptance.
It's a pretty subtle but important lesson, and I'm really glad that the book ended on such a strong, reinforcing note.
Things that didn't work/Things to consider:
While I did want the ending to be slightly differently than what it is, that's just an artistic preference on my part. Otherwise, I think Zarr and Altebrando have written a fantastic book.
Zarr and Altebrando have done a fantastic job of not only reinforcing the anxieties and fears that a person will go through when leaving for college for the first time, but also the excitement, hope and change - for better or worse - that comes along with that process of leaving.
I highly recommend this book for fans of YA contemporary fiction, especially for fans of Huntley Fitpatrick and Jennifer S. Doktorski.
I also highly recommend this book for librarians, educators and parents who may have a soon-to-depart-for-college teen on their hands. This is a book that I wish I had when I was that age, and trust me: you'll want to get it for them.
About the authors:
Tara Altebrando is an author of books for adults and teens, including The Best Night of Your (Pathetic) Life,Dreamland Social Club, What Happens Here and The Pursuit of Happiness. She lives with her family in Queens, New York. Her website is www.taraaltebrando.com.
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