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This book caught my eye because it’s an adult book by Lauren Oliver. I still don’t understand why her Young Adult novel Before I Fall connected with me so deeply, but it’s one of my favorite YA books, and probably the only one I’ve read more than once. With her YA game so strong, I was excited to see what she’d do with more adult-oriented material.
Rooms was flatly enjoyable. It felt like the kind of movie you watch on an airplane. It kept me engaged enough to keep reading, but when I was done I felt like, “Yep. I read that.” This is not a criticism of the book or its writing as much as a metric of my personal taste. Rooms is very heavy on exploring character and backstory and very light on actual plot. It’s predominantly the story of four people and two ghosts inwardly exploring their relationships and demons while not outwardly doing very much of anything. Like I said, this doesn’t make it bad. It just isn’t my jam.
The concept of this book is really interesting. An dysfunctional family comes back to their estranged patriarch’s home to clean it out after he dies. Unknown to them, the house is haunted by the ghosts of two women who died there over the years. The best part of this book is the idea and descriptions of how the ghosts haunt the house. They’re not the traditional “translucent people” kind of ghosts. They’re just energy that has absorbed into the house to the point that they are the house. They feel the house as if it’s their body, and are aware of everything that happens in every room simultaneously. And since they’ve both bonded to the house, they’ve kind of become a single thing, always in each other’s faces and up each other’s butts for eternity. It’s a fantastic and original idea for a story.
The story it’s a part of, however, is very, very slow. The only real forward momentum the novel has is a slow buildup of implied secrets. All of the people in the house, living and dead, have closets full of skeletons. The first three quarters of the book gives the reader glimpses of jawbones and kneecaps hidden in half-remembered murk. The last part throws a light on all the old bones, laying them bare for all to see. So the narrative tension in the book wasn’t so much, “Will they accomplish their goals?” as much as “Did I figure out what really happened to each of them through subtle hints and subtext?” Instead of a conclusion, the end feels like an answer key to a puzzle book. Did you figure out the answers to the riddles? Turn the page upside-down to see!
In fact, the only common thread the two ghosts have to each other and to the living family is that they all, at some point, lived in the same house. The artifacts of their lives cross due to a shared space, but the stories of their lives barely intermingle. At times it feels like each character has their own separate story that runs parallel to the rest rather than each of them being part of one collective whole. At best the disparate threads add shades of meaning or thematic flavor to each other. At worst they feel like completely different narratives fighting for dominance.
And I have one nit-pick about the prose. It’s interesting to me, because it’s a note that people have given me on my writing, but I didn’t fully appreciate how it feels to a reader until I saw it in someone else’s words. And that note is this, as quoted from a critique partner: “There were too many similes for my taste. All of them clever, but I felt many of them did not lend themselves to clarity.”
It feels like nothing in this book is just “big” or “loud” or “green.” It’s “Big as the sky over Montana on a clear day,” or “Loud like the thunder in a nightmare,” or “Green as Kermit the Frog’s bellybutton.” Sometimes it felt like every other sentence in the book had a “like” or “as” in the middle of it, slowing down the non-plot with hundreds of (lovely and well executed but) needless poetic comparisons.
In the end, I enjoyed this book enough. I felt connected enough to the characters to finish their journey with them. Though I am disappointed with the thin resolution. Each character in this book has deep-seated issues to work through and heal from. By the end of the book, few of them seemed to have been healed or set on a path to healing. Again, that’s a valid choice for the author to make, but not one that I found particularly satisfying. I would have liked the different characters with their different story lines to cross in ways that caused them to heal each other rather than to merely draw out each other’s secrets.