Review: Roomies by Tara Altebrando and Sara Zarr

Publication Date: December 24, 2013
Publisher: Little, Brown Books for Young Readers
Reading Level: 12+
Pages: 279 (ARC)
Source: BEA 2013
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.
~*~Lili's Reflections~*~

Before you read this review, know that there is going to be a small discussion on the issue of how race is treated in society below.

I picked this book up at BEA 2013 on a complete whim. At this time, I was experiencing the general nerves that come with entering college for the first time. My graduation date was a few weeks away and my roommate assignment was also a few weeks away and I was an excited yet extremely nervous wreck. So, when I saw this lovely out on display, I couldn't pass it up because of the way I could potentially relate to it. Plus, I had read several of Zarr's novels (and enjoyed them) when I was younger, though Altebrando is a new author to me. But, with that in mind, I'm extremely confused with my feelings for this novel.

I suppose the best place to start is the characterization. Right off of the bat, I had a better connection with Lauren (Lo) then I did Elizabeth (EB). This is because Lo seemed to be the calmer of the two. Elizabeth constantly over-analyzed everything and it got on my nerves rather quickly and she was incredibly naive. It did not take long for me to begin rolling my eyes thinking, "this is the type of person I left Jersey to get away from." Well, people like her and our own cast of the Real Housewives. However, she gets bonus points for majoring in landscape architecture because that was totally unique and added a cute spin on the story that I've never seen before.

But, all things aside, I could relate to both girls for different reasons. I could relate to Lo because of her money issues and the fact that she's like a third parent in her family because she has so many younger siblings. Seriously, they're like a brood. While I only have one sibling, my maturity level is entirely above hers which makes me not only the third parent when necessary, but the only child who understands financial troubles and everything of the sort. I think this aspect of Lo's characterization was very well done because it truly does weigh on you and I saw that in her. Then there's Elizabeth. Like her, I grew up in a small town in New Jersey and, like her, I couldn't wait to get out. Similar to her, my life was stuck in a repetitive rut and I was desperate for change.

In contrast, there is something in this novel that I was not happy about, and that was the way the authors handled race. I felt like it was almost constant that race was mentioned everywhere, even if off-handedly. Some of the comments had my mouth hanging open. Stuff along the lines of... "that sounds like a black name" or "I always thought black babies were the cutest." No, these aren't direct quotes, but these are situations taken from the story. So, let me explain why this bothered me so much. My Dad grew up in a bad part of Brooklyn (lots of gang violence) where he was actually one of the only white people. His dream was to get out and give his eventual family an amazing life where race was not an issue. He spent his childhood often getting beat up because of his minority race in his area, and then he grew to be six foot three by age fifteen and that changed. Long story short, his dream came true, he eventually had a family, and he moved us to a suburb in Northern Jersey so he could commute to his job in NYC everyday. The problem with this New Jersey suburb (like Elizabeth's town) is that there was no diversity. Our literal diversity came in the form of our rather large Asian population, second to our dominating Caucasian population. All other minorities were nearly non-existent. Last year, when I graduated out of high school with a population of about 1,300 students, I could say I'd only ever seen eight African American students walk the halls of my school. I knew three of them were definitely adopted, people made an especially big deal when one moved out here from Haiti. The one thing they all had in common was that they created a coping mechanism to being such a minority. They often made jokes along the lines of "Is it because I'm black?!" and everyone would laugh and go back to their normal routines. They used their race as a joke and inadvertently encouraged racism and potential stereotyping. My Dad, on the other hand, raised me saying that I grew up in a very good area and he's thankful he got us there, but that he wanted me to be aware of the fact that we lived in a bubble. The world was not like this, and I needed to be prepared for that. When college came, I was, and when I see some of the people from my school freaking out on Facebook about "befriending their first black person" I cringe inwardly when thinking about the world. I think that Elizabeth's mother, like my father, should have prepared her for the world instead of allowing her to grow up in a state of ignorant bliss. Granted, the authors characterization of her small town was spot-on, but I suppose that's why it was such a sore subject to me.

And then there's Lo's issue with race, all the way on the other side of the country in San Francisco. To put it simply, her love interest, Keyon, is African American. We had to beat around the bush to discover this, and then once it was brought up it seemingly never went away. There's a lot of mention about how race is supposedly ignored out there, yet it's admitted that it's constantly on everyone's mind underneath (at least in San Francisco). Then, there was also the fact that certain characters behaved slightly differently when in Keyon's presence and it is hinted at that this may be because of his race. Now, here's where the small rant comes out. My belief in regards to race, religion, sexuality, anything really, is that you should treat nobody differently. Say you support gay rights, yet you act differently around your daughter's new gay friend or feel the need to point out to everyone that that new friend is're doing something wrong. You're making a big deal about the difference between them and you and drawing attention to it. The right thing to do is to treat them like you would anyone else instead of focusing on what makes them different. THAT is how such a situation should be handled. If it changes how you act, you need to sit down and do some serious thinking.

Now that that is out of my system, I want to get back to my review.

Keyon was obviously mentioned above and I want to say that I adored him with every fiber of my being. He was an entertaining character that brought fun to almost every scene and I often looked forward to his entrance in Lo's chapters, which happened every other chapter, so it made me really happy that he was a rather important character that we saw a lot of. His relationship with Lo grew very naturally. Things went slow, but there was definitely a strong physical attraction between the two that led to lots of swoony kissing scenes. There was no rush to put a name on their relationship or to commit for the future, nor was there a rush to take things to the next level physically. This made me love them even more. In contrast, there's Elizabeth and Mark. Mark was perhaps once of the nicest guys I've come across and I really loved him, too, but their relationship went super fast. I suppose I condone it because their hormone-driven teens and Mark is easily lovable, but the sex and the "I love you's" and the token gifts were all too speedy for me. I felt like there was no time to breathe in their relationship and while I ship them (not as much as I do Lo and Keyon though) they needed to slow things down a bit.

On another positive note, I want to commend Altebrando and Zarr on their writing. One of my pet peeves about co-authored books is that, at times, they lack flow. It ruins the story if you can tell that the two perspectives the story alternates between are written by two different people. This is not one of those cases. The flow was effortless and it made the book a really fast read. Admittedly entertaining, though the race issue did not make me a happy little reader. Aside from that, this was very well done.

Lastly, the ending frustrated me. I did not feel like the full story was told. We spend the entire book with Lo and Elizabeth primarily communicating over e-mail. Their big meeting is coming up and we never get to see that. As a reader, I felt almost robbed of this monumental moment that would have truly tied the entire novel together.

Also, a warning to parents: I don't think that the age twelve and above recommended reading level on this was a smart decision. There is cussing, adult problems, mentions of sex, worries about sex, and a party where there is drinking mentioned. Though the age of the characters technically classifies this a new adult novel, I'd say fourteen and up seems like a better age group.

All in all, a very light, solid read for the holiday season. It has a little bit of everything: stuff to make you think, stuff to make you swoon, a set of parents you hate and another you love. It can certainly appeal to any reader, though I think you have to be in a certain type of mood to pick it up.

3 stars


FTC Disclaimer: I did  to not receive any form of compensation in exchange for my honest review. 


  1. Great review! Your comments about race are spot on. Good luck with your own adventure in college. I hope your roommate is a good one, but please don't let your new academic life get in the way of continuing to provide us with thoughtful and insightful reviews!

    I'm just reviewing this novel myself on my own blog as I read it. There isn't much there yet, but you're welcome to read it at:‎

  2. Great review! Your comments about race are spot on. Good luck with your own adventure in college. I hope your roommate is a good one, but please don't let your new academic life get in the way of continuing to provide us with thoughtful and insightful reviews!

    I'm just reviewing this novel myself on my own blog as I read it. There isn't much there yet, but you're welcome to read it at:‎