Friends, there is nothing like reading a debut romance and loving it. Surprising, funny, sexy and original, The Roommate is on my shortlist of favorite books of 2020. It’s excellent.
Clara Wheaton has loved Everett Bloom since they were small children. Their families, part of the Connecticut east coast elite, are close friends, and their parents always hoped Clara and Everett would one day wind up married. Unfortunately, Everett has so far seemed immune to any pressure from his family – or Clara – to take the friendship to the next level. But when Everett encourages Clara to “follow her bliss,” after completing her doctorate, and move in with him, Clara impulsively (uh oh) does. Her bliss, if you haven’t guessed, is Everett. Except Everett, a musician in a not very successful rock band, is following his own bliss (not Clara) – and going on a summer tour. He picks Clara up at the airport, explains why he won’t be sticking around, tells her he’s found someone to sublet his room for the summer, and drops her curbside at his LA house. Clara tries not to freak out and we all mentally agree Everett is a jerk. She’s just managed to quell her panic and is exploring her new home, when a deep male voice responds to her utterance: “So this is how it feels to be well and truly fucked,” with “I get that a lot.”
Josh Darling couldn’t believe his luck when he found this cheap summer sublet. After his most recent break-up with on-again/off-again girlfriend Naomi, he was convinced he’d be sleeping on friends’ couches all summer. He’s surprised by his buttoned-up new roommate, but since she is clearly having a bad day, he does his best to put her at ease. She finally introduces herself, telling him a little bit about herself and the circumstances that brought her to LA, and he shares that he works in the entertainment industry and lucked into the sub-let. Clara is still clearly uncomfortable, so he tries to put her at ease by teasing her about her fancy degree and background. Annoyance quickly replaces her nerves, and she breaks out a laminated list of apartment sharing rules for the summer. Josh thinks they’re funny, Clara isn’t amused (and she’s trying desperately not to gawk at her handsome roommate), and they pass the afternoon figuring out how to live together.
Although the apartment sharing situation starts off awkwardly, Josh and Clara quickly form a tentative friendship. That all changes after Josh encourages her to call her mother’s sister. Aunt Joan relocated to LA after an impulsive decision led to her banishment from the family. Joan now owns a successful PR agency, and much to Clara’s surprise, is happy to meet her. After giving her aunt the highly condensed version of her move to LA, she casually mentions the name of her new roommate. A name, it turns out, her aunt recognizes – Josh Darling is a porn star and minor celebrity. Clara – predictably – freaks out. Her disastrous move to LA is a scandal in the making, and now she can’t stop imagining Josh naked. Later that night, after trying and failing to resist, she googles him. Flushed with arousal and caught up in the scene, she fails to note Josh’s arrival at the apartment. Oops.
Almost immediately after Josh catches Clara watching him perform, their conversation devolves into a discussion of Clara’s lackluster sexual history, and Josh’s prowess at giving women pleasure and orgasms… which he’s happy to demonstrate and she quickly allows. Look, this is an only in Romancelandia plot twist, and while I thought the scene was sexy and hot, it was a tad disappointing in its predictability. But much to my surprise, The Roommate quickly pivots in a different direction.
While Clara is trying to discover herself, find her way, and confront her fears, Josh is at a professional cross-roads. Josh likes to fuck, and he gets paid for doing something he enjoys, and he’s quick to defend his career choice. Unfortunately, despite his popularity, he’s locked into a contract that mostly only benefits his employer, and Black Hat Studios is now pressuring him to join their hardcore, extreme division. Josh wants to work in the adult film industry, but can’t see a way forward… until Clara shows him a different path. Intrigued by Josh’s insistence that female desire and pleasure matter, and determined to help him, Clara suggests he start his own production company with her financial backing. Utilizing Josh’s skill set, and industry knowledge, the company could produce films to help women erase the stigma against female desire and empower them to pursue pleasure. Plot twist!
The Roommate cleverly dovetails three seemingly disparate plot threads – Clara’s search for an identity; Josh’s positive experiences in a notoriously exploitive industry; and opposites/friends/roommates falling for each other – when Josh and Clara (and Naomi) partner up. Shameless, the new company, forces Clara and Josh to spend more time together while slowly but surely cranking up the sexual tension, helping Clara find herself and Josh find purpose. Neither believes they can have a future together, and Naomi, their third badass partner, explicitly warns Josh not to mix business and pleasure. Clara – convinced Josh belongs with someone like Naomi (smart, tough, and sexually confident) – doesn’t believe she can attract a super hot, sexy and sweet porn star. Josh doesn’t think he’s good enough for Clara. And yet.
Clara’s characterization is much like you expect. She’s a controlling and controlled Type A personality, who is slightly repressed and more than a little lost. Her one attempt to detour from life’s predictable path backfired, and she’s slightly overwhelmed by the drastic changes in her life. Less predictably, she faces her choices head on and makes the best of them. She trusts her instincts about the business, and despite feeling like a less experienced, outsider, she gamely goes all-in. Josh works in an industry known for exploiting women, but he contravenes our expectations at every turn. He’s a charming, underachiever who pretends to be unaffected but is actually Extremely Soft (credit: @rosiedanan), and Clara can’t resist him (neither can we!). As you’d expect, the steam level is quite high for much of the novel, but it isn’t gratuitous. The scenes that feature Clara and Josh are particularly well done, and they wonderfully illustrate the intensity of their emotions and physical connection.
Although I like almost everything about this story and its sex-positive, female empowerment message, it’s an idealized version of the porn industry. Danan narrowly focuses our attention on the villainous Black Hat, but only fleetingly references the challenges performers face, and the often traumatic backstories of its entertainers. This is a light hearted depiction of the porn industry, and while it works in the context of the story, I can’t think it’s accurate or realistic. I also had a hard time segueing from Josh’s hearty sexual appetite to his laser focus on Clara so quickly after they meet… but since I was highly entertained by his constant state of sexual frustration for most of the novel, I can forgive it!
The Roommate is a delightful opposites-attract romance I couldn’t put down. Likeable principals, great secondary characters, clever plotting, funny dialogue, and lots of sex… it’s one of my favorite books of 2020.
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