Lauren Oliver’s Rooms is an intriguing chamber piece. It has all the successful ingredients for a proper ghost story—an isolated setting, a small cast of characters, family secrets, and even an inventive conception of ghosts. Set in an old, ramshackle house following the death of the owner, Richard Walker, the novel follows five central characters—his ex-wife Caroline, his teenage son Trenton, his daughter Minna, and finally Alice and Sandra, the ghosts who haunt them.
Alice and Sandra have been haunting the house for decades. In many ways they are the house. Its rooms are their body, and the house’s memories are a part of them and they are a part of it. In many ways this connection of physical space and memory is the most successful and interesting part of the story. Oliver further highlights this aspect by organizing the chapters room by room. Unfortunately, despite its structural importance and this promising concept is underdeveloped and left hanging in the narrative, an issue shared by the novel as a whole.
The characters are all flawed individuals, wrestling with their own personal demons, but their issues seem to develop and resolve in isolation. Caroline, the mother, is an alcoholic still trying to understand her feelings for her ex-husband. Minna knows exactly how she feels about him, but is coming to terms with her own traumatic experience, and Trenton has become suicidal. There is a great deal of material in these characters, a lot of ideas, but no deeper sense of connection, and no subtlety. Caroline’s drinking is highlighted again and again. Minna’s nymphomania is likewise reiterated ad nauseam. The ghosts are not free of this either. Alice is prim and clearly hiding something, which the reader learns because Sandra tells us that Alice is a prude and untrustworthy. Similarly, Alice informs the reader that Sandra was a drunken addict. The lack of subtlety is not a crippling problem, but it does reveal a certain lack of faith in the reader. The point is consistently driven home.
Nevertheless, Rooms is a quick read full of interesting ideas, broken characters, even a literal buried secret. All the right ingredients were present but ultimately none of the elements quite cohere into a single whole. The threads barely connect either plotwise or thematically, leaving Rooms an intriguing but ultimately frustrating novel.
Rooms can be found here on Amazon.