In which I discuss A Room on Lorelei Street by Mary E. Pearson and issue a spoiler alert. At seventeen, Zoe's childhood-that-never-was is gone, swallowed up in role reversal as she takes care of her alcoholic mother. From the beginning we learn that "it's always been about Mama," and gradually other details unfold: Mama has never been there with such simple things as a hot meal and a kiss on the cheek, Mama never wanted her to begin with, Dad died in a drunken stupor of his own in a hotel bathtub in what may or may not have been a suicide. Zoe's younger brother has found a home with an aunt and uncle, but "there isn't room" for Zoe there. Outside of being addressed by her mother as "Sugar," especially when Mama wants something, Zoe is an abandoned child, clinging only to her father's story of naming her Zoe when she was still in the womb and her mother didn't want her, because Zoe means "life." And clinging to the tantalizing fact of a room for rent, a room on Lorelei Street.
The house on Lorelei Street is owned by a sweet but eccentric old lady with a "can do" attitude who has long since stopped caring whether anyone thinks she's weird. In this respect, the book falls into the "eccentric old neighbor who just needs a friend" cliche that shows up frequently in children's lit, though mostly in younger stories. Predictably, the two unlikely friends connect and supply each other's needs: increased income and human contact for the landlord, a healthy adult role model and encourager for Zoe. But Zoe's only source of income is her waitress job at a diner, and financial trouble can't be far off.
Quicker trouble erupts in the form of a visit from Grandma, who knocks at her door and hollers about what a horrible girl she is for moving out. Suddenly we learn about a whole family we didn't know Zoe had: Mama is Grandma's youngest and favorite child, and Grandma denies that Mama's alcohol problems are killing her. Zoe almost gives in to Grandma's insistence that she move back home, then refuses. Taunting her that she isn't real family, will not be welcome at her brother's birthday party, and will certainly "come begging and crying" to be taken back, Grandma storms off. And Zoe determines she will never go crawling back. Though this portion of the novel does the very important job of putting Zoe between a rock and a hard place, I found the sudden introduction/acknowledgment of so many new family members jarring. I think some hint of their existence should have been given earlier.
Pearson's greatest success is the compassion for Zoe that she evokes in the reader. Zoe is an understandably and believably tough girl -- she swears, smokes, has looked for love in several wrong places, tends to run afoul of teachers, and yet our hearts go out to her. She represents youth's desperate search for direction, meaning, purpose, love, someone to have a care what happens to them. We understand why she flirts with death, often balance-beaming across an aqueduct with other daredevil kids, although others have fallen in and drowned.
I must say, I was disconcerted to find a 4th-level Accelerated Reader sticker on this book. The seventeen-year-old MC, abundant use of four-letter words, taken-for-granted teen sex, a quick "ewww" snapshot of the drunken mother with a lover, and Zoe's ultimate sex-for-pay with a diner customer when she is desperate for rent make this an upper YA title. The word "prostitute" is never used, but Zoe realizes after only the one episode that she is now too much like Mama and Daddy for comfort -- she who would do anything for the room, the same way her parents would do anything for a drink. In the end, she is off to stay with one of Grandma's other daughters for a while -- the one who distanced herself from the drama early -- "as long as there's room."