Book Review: Lauren Oliver’s “Rooms”

Published 12/21/14 by:

Rooms Book Jacket

 

 

“This is how we grow: not up, but out, like trees – swelling to encompass all these stories, the promises and lies and bribes and habits.” (Excerpted from “Rooms”)

I won’t lie to you, I was not totally enthused about a novel in which ghosts are the narrators. It’s not that I’m prejudiced against ghosts, or people who believe in them, but I just wasn’t convinced that this wouldn’t be another gimmick to make the plot seem more enticing than it actually is. However, in the case of Lauren Oliver’s latest novel “Rooms”, I was pleasantly surprised, and my assumptions were quickly squashed.

So why did I buy a book that initially didn’t seem appealing to me? Well, for starters, I’ve read quite a few of Oliver’s books, and I’ve enjoyed her storytelling. Additionally, I am a total sucker for entertaining dysfunctional families (see Tropper’s “This Is Where I Leave You”), so “Rooms” had some pull in that department. While my readership is constantly being driven by how many fascinating characters a novel is advertising, “Rooms” did not have that immediate draw. In fact, very little is revealed about the two ghost narrators, while the family whose house they’re inhabiting takes center stage.

As you delve into the book you’re immersed in a chaotic family event: the oft-ignored patriarch of the family, Richard Walker, has passed away. His adult daughter Minna, ex-wife Caroline, teenage son Trenton, and his granddaughter all flock to his home to get organized and hear his will. As a result of the divorce, the alternating narrator ghosts Alice and Sandra have not seen the rest of the Walker clan in years, and are quickly trying to brush up on what this quirky family has been up to. In hearing the ooos and ahhs of the Walkers’ arrival, as told by Sandra and Alice, you learn that the two ghosts have been putting up with each other for years, and do not particularly get along. It’s not until much later in the novel that you understand the complexity of their living and non-living relationship.

Most of us are aware of ghost lore, and how we’re to assume that ghosts exist because they’re in an “in-between” state – with unfinished business, or unresolved issues around their death. Oliver plays into this well-established notion, and expertly weaves revelations about the two ghosts’ pasts, as they attempt to use the vulnerable Trenton as a scapegoat for their issues. Ultimately, they’re hoping to get rid of the Walkers, but in a way that also expels them from the home they’ve been forced to haunt.

As the reader becomes more aware of the feelings and histories of Alice and Sandra, you’re also drawn in to how they function daily. There’s no escape from the home they’re attached to, and whatever naughty behaviors Caroline, Minna and Trenton are up to, they are subjected to it. This reality (if I may) is both curious and depressing, and as a reader I was drawn to how they negotiate their way into the lives of the Walkers, who have chosen not to “hear” Alice and Sandra for years.

At one point the ghosts refer to themselves as “the endless swells” who “carry the crests of his voice to her mouth”, and I couldn’t help but gasp at the thought of this all being real. Lauren Oliver’s debut novel for adults is a haunting tale, not because it has ghosts, but because the ghosts perhaps know how to live better than the humans they haunt.

Book Grade: B+

 

 

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Book Review: Lauren Oliver’s “Before I Fall”

Published 3/8/14 by:

Before I fall Cover

“There’s always going to be a person laughing and somebody getting laughed at. It happens every day, in every school, in every town in America – probably in the world, for all I know. the whole point of growing up is learning to stay on the laughing side.” (Oliver, 5)

 

You’re not going to like Samantha Kingston. Although she’s the protagonist in Lauren Oliver’s thought-provoking young adult novel “Before I Fall”, she’s difficult to root for. Why? Because she’s one of the “top four” most popular girls in her Connecticut high school, and the entire novel takes place on one day: February 12th, also known as “Cupid Day”. While some of you may remember Valentine’s Day in high school as a lonesome celebration that reminded you of how uncool you were, for Samantha Kingston and her BFFs, it’s the day where their peers become painfully aware of their popularity in a very visible way – by how many roses are sent to them. Perhaps you’re having flashbacks to “Mean Girls”, or perhaps you’re already turned off by the setting of this YA novel, but I can tell you this: “Before I Fall” will have you reconsidering most of the moves you made as a teenager, and maybe even some you’ve made as an adult.

 

On February 12th Samantha Kingston dies. This isn’t a spoiler because you’re made aware of this fact within the first page of the novel. What you soon find out is that Sam has to relive this day seven times, each time becoming more drastically different than the one before. This is where I, as a reader, became fascinated. There have been plenty of films, novels, shorts stories etc. that have tackled this idea of if you could relive one day how would you do it, what mistakes would you continue to make, and why? Lauren Oliver is making her mark on this existentialist’s dilemma by having her female protagonist, Sam, be a selfish, beautiful senior in high school, who continues to not get it right on her second, third, fourth and even fifth attempt at the same 24 hour period of time. This is a protagonist with flaws. Sam, as the narrator, makes the assertion that “Popularity’s a weird thing. You can’t really define it, and it’s not cool to talk about it, but you know it when you see it. Like a lazy eye, or porn.” (Oliver, 17)  Sam starts to question everything that she worked towards in terms of popularity, but she still makes lousy decisions time and time again. Some of those choices are a result of her being angry that she’s dead, while some of her choices become increasingly self-destructive and wild because, well, the consequence will never change.

 

As I plowed through this novel I considered what I was like at seventeen, and whether or not I would push the limits of what I could get away with, if I knew I was dead the next day no matter what. Would I unashamedly kiss the boy I always had a crush on? Would I go for cheap thrills like cheating on a test, skipping class, smoking in the school bathroom, or speeding recklessly? Would I become sentimental and incessantly tell my favorite people how much I love them, just to ensure they know before I am gone? I honestly don’t know. What I do know, is that as a seventeen-year-old I did not face the dilemmas or drama that Sam tackles in her seven tangos with February 12th, which made her moments of clarity and stupidity that much more compelling.

 

Book Grade: B+

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