Roomies by Sara Zarr & Tara Altebrando

roomiesMaybe it’s because my daughter is graduating from high school in a few weeks and heading off to university or maybe it’s because, just lately, I have been feeling unsettled and nostalgic, but whatever the reason: I LOVED Roomies. Co-written by Sara Zarr (Story of a Girl) and Tara Altebrando, Roomies‘ narrative is comprised of the back and forth e-mail communication between Elizabeth (EB) and Lauren (Lo), who have been assigned a room together at UC Berkley, as well as their first person narrative of events during that pivotal summer between high school and what comes next.

EB lives with her single mother in a condo on the Jersey Shore (but she doesn’t sound like a character from the reality show of the same name.) Her first e-mail to Lauren is a rant of epic proportions: she’s just had a fight with her mother and she’s already counting the days until she can leave the nest and fly across country.

Lauren has five younger siblings. They are so much younger, in fact, that she’s more like another mother than an older sister. She loves her family, but she has been dreaming about a single room for a while and so the first note from EB comes as something of a disappointment. She imagines writing a reply to EB that says:

I requested a single. All I’ve wanted for the last decade is a room of my own. Some privacy. A place to be alone with my thoughts where they are not constantly interrupted by someone else making some kind of racket, or even just someone else just quietly trying to exist in the same space as me…A “roomie” is really not what I had in mind. Really not what I had in mind at all.

Of course, this is not the note Lauren sends. Her actual reply is much less personal and honest. Nevertheless, despite the awkward beginning, the email exchange between EB and Lauren slowly morphs into something special as each girl tries to navigate that tricky period between “childhood” and “adulthood”.

I remember that summer between high school and university as a very transitional time. I wasn’t actually going away to school; my parents couldn’t afford it. Most of my best friends did go away, though. And so did the boy I fell in love with that summer. I wanted to be someone different – desperately. (Funny, that – almost forty years later, I still often want to be someone different.) Zarr and Altebrando capture that yearning ache so perfectly that I felt myself magically transported back to that long ago summer. Everything was funnier or sadder or profoundly important then.

When you go off to university (which I did the following year) you get to reinvent yourself. The person you were in high school can be magically shed like an old skin; there is no one around who “knew you when” and there’s something pretty amazing (albeit terrifying) in that. But there is also something pretty amazing about being with the people who have known you through all those formative years – people who know your flaws and love you anyway.  I appreciated the way Zarr and Altebrando handled those high school relationships – the push and pull that comes from preparing to make the break and also desperately holding on to something that is important.

Lauren writes:  “There’s this party on Saturday with kids from our high school and she (Lauren’s best friend, Zoe) wants to go and wants me to go with her. I don’t know. I just feel like high school is over…”

EB writes: “Lately my friends don’t talk about anything I find interesting. I’m not sure when that started.”

Over the course of the summer, the correspondence between EB and Lauren becomes more personal as they share details about their last summer at home. I loved each girl’s voice and story. I loved the secondary characters: parents and boyfriends. I loved how EB in particular comes to a deeper understanding of her mother. Perhaps some day my own daughter will understand me a little bit better, too.

Although I would love to follow EB and Lauren through their first year as roomies, I am glad that Zarr and Altebrando decided to end their story where they did. I haven’t read a YA book I have loved as much as this one in a long time.

As my daughter prepares to embark on her own journey I am both elated and terrified. I hope she makes friends like EB and Lauren. I hope she becomes the person she wants to be.

Highly recommended.

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