Book Review: Rooms, by Lauren Oliver

Lauren Oliver’s young adult work on books like Panic and Delirium has been fantastic, so I was intrigued when a copy of Rooms landed in my mailbox. I’m used to adult authors trying their hand at YA, but not so much the other way around, so I was intrigued to see how her voice would translate to adult writing, in addition to being excited to see her expand her range. Oliver has a lyrical, fascinating, layered way of writing that applies fantastically well to YA, but how about adult fiction? Would her work be dismissed as ‘chick lit’ instead of being taken seriously as literary fiction?

Rooms is the story of a family, a house, a history, a series of events, as told by the ghosts who live in a house and the people who descend upon it in the wake of a single catalysing event. It’s a story that bounces from viewpoint to viewpoint, always a challenge, especially when all of the characters are lying to themselves and each other about who they are and what their history is. In Rooms, nothing is to be believed, even when characters claim to be honest with the reader, and it’s only with time that you begin to pull together the truth of what happened over the course of multiple generations of inhabitants in the house and their actions.

What fascinates me about Rooms is that it’s about a series of small domestic tragedies that pull together and around each other in a series of events where people are forced to interact with each other and face the issues in their lives to find resolution and freedom. Maybe it’s a ghost who needs to let go of her past and face her life, or it’s an adult who needs to address her issues with her parents; in either case, it’s not possible to go it alone. Rooms confronts viewers with the fact that getting resolution isn’t easy, and that it’s okay to reach out for support rather than trying to attempt the impossible independently.

Oliver sets the book as a series of vignettes that revolve around different rooms in the house, keeping us entirely within the confines of the house for the story. This creates a sort of bottle episode setting that is at times claustrophobic, but also at times strangely freeing — because it means Oliver could focus on the character development instead of having to develop and redevelop settings. There’s something to find in the notion of focusing a world on a single place and a single instant in time, and letting the rest fall away; our characters do not go outside in some cases because they are bound by the confines of the house, and in others because they’re bound by their own issues, and thus we never see what happens outside the house, though we may hear about it indirectly.

This is a story of mysteries layered upon mysteries. At times, it was very confusing and I found myself losing the thread of the story and having difficulty tracking everything that was going on. A word of advice to the reader: Take your time with Rooms. Don’t rush through the story, and take note of all the characters, who is saying and doing what, the pieces of their history that you have been able to collect. If you are not careful, you will discover that you’re left wondering what the heck just happened, and the narrative will feel jumpy and confusing, instead of sewn together like the blocks of a quilt. Take your time, and don’t be afraid to turn it over and read it again as soon as you’re done, because you will get more out of it on a second read.

Books that force the reader to slow down and pay attention are a valuable part of the literary world, especially in an era where people feel constantly rushed and slightly panicked, including me. I don’t like to fall into the trap of claiming that the internet is making the world a terrible place filled with people who can’t slow down, but we do live in a very media-saturated culture and we are accustomed to getting what we want very quickly, and to getting exactly what we want, no holds barred. So it’s worth noting that texts like Rooms go against that trend, creating an environment where the reader must take a deep breath, take some time aside, and engage with the text.

And that is not necessarily a bad thing. In fact, even as Rooms was filled with tragic and terrible events described in Oliver’s trademark lyrical style, it was also strangely calming to sit down to read it, because it required my full attention and focus. Hypocritically, even as I’m writing this review, I’m allowing my focus to split in 12 different directions. I’m thinking about what to make for lunch, I’m checking and responding to email, I’m pitching stories and considering what angle I want to use when approaching them, I’m waiting for feedback from editors, I’m thinking about my own writers, I’m periodically pulling Twitter up to see if anything needs my attention. This window has been sitting open for an hour as I try to work on this review and get it finished up — and Rooms reminded me that life doesn’t have to be that way.

That maybe it shouldn’t be.

Note: This review is based on a copy provided by the publisher. I have not received any other compensation or consideration.