Review: Roomies by Sara Zarr and Tara Altebrando

27 February, 2014 Reviews 15 comments

I received this book for free from Publisher in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.

Review: Roomies by Sara Zarr and Tara AltebrandoRoomies by Sara Zarr, Tara Altebrando
Narrator: Becca Battoe, Emily Eiden
Length: 8 Hrs.
Series: Standalone
Published by Hachette Audio on December 24, 2013
Genres: Contemporary, Young Adult
Format: Audiobook
Source: Publisher
Amazon Good BooksBook Depository

It'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.

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.

I usually don’t get very personal in my reviews because I’m sending it off to a publisher afterwards and whatnot, but for Roomies I have to make a small exception. So the first half of this post is going to be a normal review, telling why Roomies is awesome and why you should totally consider buying the audio version. The second half will be just my general feelings and what this novel meant to me personally. I shed a few tears, guys.

“Live in the present. Take care of the relationships in front of you now. Most friendships have a natural life, and when they’ve lived that out, you’ll know.”

I was initially drawn to Roomies because it had such an interesting cover and premise. I loved the idea of two strangers getting to know each other over one summer before college. But what I didn’t expect was such a complex cast of characters, heartbreaking relationships and two coming of age stories that felt so realistic and utterly honest. I underestimated this novel, and boy what a mistake that was.

Elizabeth, AKA EB, lives with her mom in New Jersey and is excited to move away to California for college. On the opposite side of the country is Lauren who is the oldest sibling out of six, who can’t wait to finally have her own space in college. Unfortunately for Lauren, she ends up getting a roomie despite requesting a single. Elizabeth is excited at the thought of having a roommate since she’s always been an only child, so she begins emailing Lauren. Over the course of the summer they learn more about each other and their selves. It’s the story of how an unlikely friendship can completely change your outlook on life and your future.

What I loved most about Roomies was the honest character portrayal. Both Elizabeth and Lauren’s voice was realistic for their age and perfectly highlighted the feelings of a teen leaving their family for college. There are feelings of excitement, uncertainty, regrets, fear, homesickness, etc. But these never felt overpowering and flowed so well from page to page. The reader or listener, learns more about the characters’ lives as they learn more about each other. I’ve read my share of dual POV novels before and I believe this may be one of my favorites. I cared about both girls equally and got excited each and every time the POV flipped. I think this is also in large part to the AMAZING narrators Becca Battoe and Emily Eiden, whose chemistry was perfect. There aren’t a lot of YA novels that take place right after high school and before college (I’m not talking about New Adult). Someone FIX THIS because it needs to be a thing.

And then we have the love interests. GUYS, *SWOON*. The best part of the dual POVs was seeing two girls find two equally amazing guys that both complimented them and encouraged them positively. Lauren’s love interest, Keyon, was hands down my favorite (more on him in a bit) because he really caused both Lauren and Elizabeth to challenge their feelings on race. This book isn’t about race, not by a long shot, but I really appreciated that dynamics of Lauren figuring it out. However, Elizabeth’s boyfriend, Mark, is not to be forgotten. I really loved how, after being in a relationship that didn’t sit right with her, she found this guy who was willing to wait for her. Mark was the kind of guy that I’d want all girls to end up with. The sweet guy who is concerned for who you are instead of what you can do for them. The contrast between the undesirable guy and the awesome guy was a great aspect of the novel, one that I wish I saw more of in YA.

Finally, there is the ending. I love how it ends with the promise of hope. It’s realistic because both girls are entering into a part of their lives where anything could happen. Yet, instead of them having these feelings of uncertainty that we saw in the beginning, they are confident and read to conquer what comes ahead. I truly loved this book and it’s the first contemporary audiobook that I actually really enjoyed.


Steph’s Outtakes

This is something that I want to do more at the end of my reviews where I just talk about something that really hit my feels pretty hard. I don’t always want to put it in the review that I’m sending to the publisher–though I have no issue if they read it anyway–because it’s more personal and less objective. But at the same time, I don’t want to write another post about the same book, so Outtakes has been born.

My feelings. Guys, can we talk about misrepresentation in YA for a minute in honor of Black History Month? I have this thing where when I run across a black character in a novel and put them under a microscope. It’s not something I mean to do or even realize I’m doing, but I am more critical of seeing how my race is portrayed in novels. I can’t help it.

So there’s a black character in Roomies named Keyon. While he’s not really a major part of the novel, I felt his character and mannerisms were so accurate. It’s not only that, but the way Lauren, Elizabeth and others reacted to him. When Lauren first mentions him in an email to Elizabeth, she doesn’t mention his race, only his name. This leaves Elizabeth wondering if Keyon is black because she guesses that Keyon is a black name. But then she realizes how horrible that sounds and checks her privilege at the door. After that, there are a few times were Elizabeth has moments of deep thought about race and how little she knows about the world and other cultures. And I loved that moment because it was a moment of growth for her to say, “Hey, I’ve just realized I don’t know anything, but I want to learn.” She also thinks about how she doesn’t have any black friends, how terrible she finds that and how she wants to widen out her social circles when she goes to college.

Then there’s the part where Lauren is meeting Keyon’s parents and she says:

“Keyon and Joe Junior were adorable kids. I’ve always thought black babies were the cutest, and I almost say that to Sue before realizing there’s no way to say it without being totally offensive or making Sue think I’m an idiot. 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?”

Right as I heard that, I knew some might be offended by this. And I get because it sounds wrong, but I know some people think this. Years ago, my aunt, who is white, made a similar comment, saying she thought black women were prettier than white women. I chucked at it then because it was such an awkward moment and she was really trying hard not to offend anyone. But back to Lauren, I liked how she thought about what she was going to say before she did. As much as we all want to pretend that race isn’t a Thing, it still is. And what you say to a person can be offensive even if you don’t mean it like that.

That was clear especially when Keyon met Lauren’s parents for the first time and she was a little nervous about it. Lauren’s dad is none too thrilled about their relationship partly because he’s being a dad and that’s just what dad’s do, and party because Keyon is black. Keyon knows this and Lauren knows this, but Keyon just takes it in stride as just One of Those Things That Sometimes Happens When You’re Black. I’m not saying Lauren’s dad is a racist. He’s not, however, it’s that ingrained prejudice that still lingers in our country that still makes race a Thing. It’s unfortunate, sure. But it’s still there and probably will be for a long time. (Hell, before I started using a picture of my face as my avatar, you should have seen some of the surprised faces I got at signings. Fun times.)

Random Personal Story: View Spoiler »

And then there’s Keyon himself and his side jokes about his own race. Now this is something that some might not get unless they grew up around black people or have black friends or maybe have seen The Chappelle Show, but satire is an awesome thing. Sometimes you make jokes about serious things as an icebreaker in a particularly uncomfortable situation. I do this all the time because otherwise, I’ll cry and that’s no fun. Keyon, a one point, is trying to find out how Lauren feels about them as a couple. He can tell she’s hesitant, and while her hesitation is not exactly race related, she does think about it. She finds him beautiful and is surprised he is interested in her at all, being an ordinary white girl. So he says something along the lines of, “…unless you don’t date the brothas?” and she, flustered, replies, “Oh! I date the brothas…” And I thought it was such a cute moment. Two kids walking the line of uncertainty, both thinking they aren’t worthy of each other.

So when I think about Elizabeth and Lauren challenging how they’ve viewed race and whatnot, it’s well-done. I know some reviewers disliked how much Keyon’s race was mentioned, and I suppose it may have made some people uncomfortable, but it was real. Because it’s exactly what happens in real life. People every day think what Lauren and Elizabeth thought. And people like Keyon exist and go through these things everyday. Keyon was just such a well-done character that I actually cried for a moment. It was the way he talked, the things he said, how he and his family were portrayed in such a positive light. This is by far not a sad book, and I don’t even know if the authors intentionally set out to do this, but it’s always nice when someone takes the time to get it right.

Steph Sinclair

Steph Sinclair

Co-blogger at Cuddlebuggery
I'm a bibliophile trying to make it through my never-ending To-Be-Read list, equal opportunity snarker, fangirl and co-blogger here at Cuddlebuggery. Find me on GoodReads.

15 Responses to “Review: Roomies by Sara Zarr and Tara Altebrando”

  1. AmberJ.

    Steph, this was an excellent review.
    I’ve noticed that other reviews of this book don’t even mention Keyon’s character at all and I would have never even known about him and considerations about race (even if they occur sparingly) in this book if I didn’t read your review. I guess that’s because this is something that really resonates with us because we deal with misrepresentation and stereotypes and prejudice in real life. It’s just good to see a character of color in a YA novel that’s more than just a placeholder.

    I’m also glad you included your Random Personal Story. Sad to say I’m actually not surprised those customers said those things to you. I live in NYC my whole life and I’ve actually experienced more racism up here than any of the summers I spent in MD and VA =(

    • Steph Sinclair

      Thank you, Amber!

      The only reviews that mention Keyon that I have read say that his race was mentioned too much. But if characters are thinking about race and how it’s something they know little about and they’re trying not to be offensive, I don’t really think that’s a bad thing. Happens all the time in real life. I hate to say this, but it’s almost like no one wanted to be reminded that Keyon was black. Not to say that’s what they were trying to do, but that’s the impression that I got as I read other reviewers’ thoughts.

      Oy. That’s horrible. I don’t know why, but I kinda expected better from NY. I guess you have assholes wherever you go.

  2. Natalie M.

    I agree with your comment about wanting to read more YA books set in between high school and college, or about college in general. I love high school just as much as the next person but it’d be nice to read about a time period or transition that’s actually relevant to my life at at the moment. The uncertainty, the anticipation and, though I loathe to admit it, fear. It’s an unforgettable experience.

    And Keyon sounds like an awesome character. I’ve been meaning to try Sara Zarr’s A Story of a Girl for a while and I’ll definitely add Roomies onto my list as well!

  3. Vidya @ Books Are Magic

    Awesome awesome review, Steph.

    I am from India and I know what racism is. Although I never have to face it myself, I know and have friends who face this every day. It’s what makes me think we still have to grow..a lot.

    I like you, Steph. I comment rarely in your blog. But, when you first put your face as your avatar, I am surprised..yes..but, that is good surprised and that’s because I was seeing you for the first time and I liked the face behind all those reviews.
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  4. Cait @ Notebook Sisters

    I kind of really desperately want to read this. 😉 I saw the big blogging promo that went around a few months ago with everyone sharing their roomies stories and doing giveaways, and it was all so cool! But I kind of forgot about it until now. I so need to get this one. I like it that it kind of hangs in the balance of YA and NA. That definitely needs to be more of a Thing. and I LOVE that the main characters are equally awesome! I get dubious about split POVs too…sometimes they’re so lame, eh? And you end up just wanting to get to the “good” character while the other one whines in the corner. Okay, lol, anyway! Great review!!
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  5. Lisa (Fic Talk)

    Excellent review, Stephanie.

    I actually chuckled a little at the part where Keyon jokingly says to Lauren “…unless you don’t date the brothas?” and she’s all flustered and cute in her reply because I can just SEE that image in my head “Oh! I date the brothas…”

    I honestly wouldn’t mind seeing more YA that deals with interracial couples. And people who have mentioned that his race was talked about too much are probably too embarrassed to admit that they were just uncomfortable with it. For me, being of mixed race – I look nothing like my mom, and people stare – I sometimes feel like PoC need to be SEEN, not just known by their name because it sounds black or white or blue.

    I liked how personal you got, too. Sometimes some things just need to be said.
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  6. Sallie M.

    Race isn’t going anywhere anytime, and while a lot of people have the opinion that being “color blind” is the best mind set, I think it’s important to recognize race but not let it cloud judgment or impressions. Weird example, but I was watching Family Feud the other day (it’s totz still on TV) and the question was “What do people enjoy guessing about other people?” and one of the answers was race/nationality. Among them are age, occupation, salary, and sexuality. These are all things we are told not to be prejudice against, but we are curious animals by nature and these are the most basic things we like to think is important when defining who a person is. I always recognize characters race in fiction, and just like the saying, “any publicity is good publicity,” I think the more it’s talked about/discussed, the better it is. Even if characters are ignorant or racist in their actions/what they say, as a reader, I’m able to determine on my own how I feel about a character. But being one race or another is never really a deciding factor. If the character is Asian, and they’re stuck up, entitled, and rude to others, I see them as a tacky character, not a tacky Asian. That’s just too much generalization. So I’m glad to see that Roomies has race as a main topic in it’s narrative. No matter how it’s handled, I think it’s important to realize every reader is going to take it differently, and maybe the more we’re exposed to the topic of race in discussion, it’ll become less substantial in defining who a person is.

    Great review, Steph! Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

  7. Eileen @ Singing and Reading in the Rain

    Aww I feel like this one is really realistic with the character portrayal and he ending. I love when endings are kind of open-ended and leave room for further development and speculation. Also, I heard some complaints about how race was treated in this book, but I’m really glad that you felt that it worked out! Even though making jokes about your own race is considered frowned upon by most people, a majority of the younger generation definitely do it, and so I can definitely understand how you identified with that aspect of Keyon’s character. Fantastic review, Steph! <33 Glad that you liked this one 🙂
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  8. Cassie

    While I think your review piqued my interest, your personal connection to this book was awesome! And I’m happy to hear you were pleased with how an African American character was portrayed. I’ll definitely have to pick this book up!

    Cassie @ Citrus Reads

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