Although the tradition of telling ghost stories goes back at least 2,000 years (Pliny the Younger recorded one) and can be found all over the world, there are only two real kinds of ghost story: the kind that is scary, and the kind that is sad. The best stories --- “La Llorna,” for example --- combine these elements for maximum emotional resonance, but even so, one feeling usually governs the other. Take ROOMS, the first adult novel by celebrated YA author Lauren Oliver. The book is frequently eerie. At times, it can be downright chilling. However, when the last page is turned, and the book (or eReader) is finally set down --- lightly, on the nearest flat surface --- there can be no mistake: as far as ghost stories go, ROOMS is sad.
Richard Walker’s recent death has brought his estranged family --- ex-wife Caroline, daughter Minna and son Trenton --- back to his estate in Coral River to divvy up the patriarch’s possessions, which includes the house itself. These Walkers are an unhappy bunch. Caroline, a barely functioning alcoholic with a sharp tongue and deep-rooted bitterness, is unable to be a proper mother to Minna, a pill-popping sex addict, or Trenton, a profoundly depressed and recently suicidal teenager. When the three of them --- plus Minna’s young daughter, Amy --- arrive at the house, any respective glimpses of nostalgia are quickly muffled under anger, annoyance and boredom. Caroline, Minna and Trenton used to live in this house, but their emotional connection to it was severed a long time ago. Now it’s merely a hassle, an isolated event where they reluctantly share close quarters until Richard’s will and funeral are taken care of. The Walkers, and their baggage, are trapped.
"By turns funny and elegiac, the story grows outward to accommodate its increasing complexity. The presence of Sandra and Alice make it a bonafide ghost story, but like any good supernatural tale, Lauren Oliver’s novel is less concerned with 'how' and more concerned with 'why.'"
And they’re not alone. Sandra and Alice, two pre-Walker occupants of the house, now haunt it. In the early chapters of the book, their main function seems to be providing exposition and color commentary on the Walker family while occasionally taking potshots at each other --- a sort of spooky Statler and Waldorf, bickering comic relief. As the novel progresses, however, the two ghosts begin to reveal the tragic circumstances that led to their current predicament. As with the Walkers, it is an unhealthy obsession with the past that prevents Sandra and Alice from moving on.
ROOMS features an ensemble cast and is delivered in six rotating points of view. This structure demonstrates the interlocking components of the characters’ stories (as well as Oliver’s impressive ability to write multiple voices in a single book), but it also splits the reader’s emotional attention --- perhaps too much for a 300-page novel. Each character is fascinating, but there simply isn’t enough time to fully explore them. Fortunately, Oliver is a terrific writer and makes the most out of the limited time we get with each character. When Trenton is pounding down a flight of rickety wood stairs in a chapter told from Alice’s point of view, it’s described as “the feeling of a doctor knocking on a kneecap, testing for reflexes; painless and unsettling.” I’ve never been a house before, but I imagine that’s exactly what it feels like. Moments like this keep the narrative coherent across the sometimes-scattered points of view.
Ultimately, ROOMS is well worth your time. By turns funny and elegiac, the story grows outward to accommodate its increasing complexity. The presence of Sandra and Alice make it a bonafide ghost story, but like any good supernatural tale, Lauren Oliver’s novel is less concerned with “how” and more concerned with “why.”
Reviewed by Sam Glass on September 23, 2014