July 2003

Melissa Roy

fiction

The Room-Mating Season by Rona Jaffe

Rona Jaffe's The Room-Mating Season was probably one of the quickest reads of any book that I've reviewed for Bookslut.com. In fact, I finished it in one afternoon. It is certainly not a deep read by any means, but the story of three girls in the 1960s, who began living together in New York City and remained friends throughout the unexpected twists and turns in their lives, was a reasonably engaging one.

Leigh Owen, Cady Fineman, Vanessa Preet, and Susan Brown all essentially moved in together in 1963 out of necessity: They were all single women in the big city who couldn't afford a place on their own and hadn't yet found husbands. Leigh, an assistant at a talent management agency, falls in love with an apartment on the Upper East Side of New York City and calls her college friend Cady Fineman, a schoolteacher, to convince her to move from her parents' house in Scarsdale into the apartment with Leigh to shorten her commute. Cady agrees, and they place an ad in the newspaper for two more roommates to make the rent more affordable (even though the apartment is a one-bedroom, one-bath and the girls will all have to share the small quarters). Vanessa Preet, a pretty and sexually confident flight attendant, is accepted first. After that, Leigh and Cady can't quite find anyone who lives up to Vanessa's standards, so they accept what they believe to be the lesser of all of evils: Susan Brown, "pleasant if a little dull", who has a much-needed television set.

The girls find the close quarters bothersome at times, but live together in relative peace until Susan's unusual habits (naked exercises in the living room, blatant jealousy of the other girls' dates) become too much. They find that they just can't live with her anymore and begin to treat her rudely. After a tragedy results in Susan's death, though, the girls are left to deal with guilt over the way they treated her, and that guilt bonds them even more tightly together. They begin to explore avenues of newfound freedom - sexual and professional - in a time of social change. Life continues on for each of the girls, and for their male friend Charlie Rackley - one of Vanessa's cast-aside suitors who settled for joining the group as a friend back in the days when they lived together, although their relationships and their closeness change as the times change.

Jaffe uses the relationships between the girls and their suitors, their relationships with each other, and their professional lives as a platform from which to examine some of the conditions and situations facing women during that era. The book becomes, then, a cursory but entertaining look not only at the complex relationships between women who are bonded together by circumstance, but also at the society of the 1960s, where independence and social expectation pushed against one another and left many women (and men) confused about how to proceed. We are often taught to think, as "modern" women, that the ladies of earlier decades did not have the freedom to make choices - particularly romantic choices - as these girls do, but Jaffe disputes that notion. Her characters have the autonomy to move up in the world professionally and fulfill themselves sexually and emotionally. However, they are also still constrained by society's demands - and by men who don't want to leave their wives for their "summer girls." Jaffe is able to point out this struggle, one that confused many men and women during that time, with lighthearted humor. She does an effective job of giving her readers likable, although not compelling, characters and a good, although not great or always believable, story line with a light social commentary. Although it's no literary classic, the book is certainly, for lack of a better term, a good "beach read."

The Room-Mating Season by Rona Jaffe
Dutton
ISBN: 0525947132
326 pages