Guest Review: House Rules by Ruby Lang

February 10, 2020

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House Rules

by Ruby Lang
February 10, 2020 · Carina Press
Contemporary RomanceNovellaRomance

We have another review from Carole! If you missed her amazing review of Hearts on Hold, have a look!

Carole is a Jamaican immigrant, a lover of politics and popular culture, a Tar Heel by way of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Media and Journalism, and a die hard, unrepentant bookworm. She teaches, researches and writes about media and society, politics, and public opinion. She’s most interested in how gender, race and sexual identity shape how we see, navigate and live in the world.

Her upcoming book The Politics of Interracial Romance in American Film, is a comprehensive analysis of the representation, reception and social and political significance of Black-White romantic narratives in American film.

CW: Discussions of endometriosis and infertility.

House Rules is a second chance romance involving a long estranged divorced couple who reunite as roommates, cohabiting a beautiful brownstone apartment in a highly sought Manhattan neighborhood that neither one of them could never afford on their own. That may sound unlikely. But it’s not quite as bonkers if you’ve ever lived the frustration of a New York City apartment hunt, and Ruby Lang communicates that desperate reality beautifully. It is a quintessentially, uniquely New York scenario and I enjoyed it from start to finish.

The premise is just one of this novella’s many strengths. Chief among them are its compelling, uncommon central characters, Simon and Lana, who reflect several underrepresented groups for romance. Simon is White and Jewish. Lana is an Asian American woman managing both endometriosis and recurring pain due to her occupation. Those conditions play a role in her work life and their relationship. Both are in their forties and have normal professions which they are good at, but which are never going to make them wealthy. Simon is a music educator and musician; Lana is a chef who gave up a floundering career in music long ago. They’ve been bruised by each other and by life experience but in ordinary, everyday ways. I liked who they were and how they felt about each other: their stage of life, their connection, and their anxieties were all very real. It was easy to relate to what Simon and Lana go through: the combination of angst and concern in your forties about where you are and what’s next; the nagging questions of how much change versus stability you want; and the greater appreciation for how precious love really is. When you’re single in middle age it’s natural to doubt that you’ll ever find it again. I like it because I recognize it. These are common concerns and yet they still feel unusual for the genre.

Setting is another strongpoint, especially the specific details of modern urban life. House Rules is the third book in the Uptown series, which takes place in Harlem, one of the most historically meaningful neighborhoods in America for African Americans. Harlem is gentrified, expensive and increasingly White, and that demographic shift plays a part in these novels. Those changes aren’t presented uncritically. The world in this series is multicultural, multiracial, messy, challenging, and, at times, contentious.

It can also be lovely as in this gathering, seen through Lana’s eyes:

It felt like a real community. People knew each other. All these brown, golden, pale, dark, beautiful faces in the audience. She wasn’t naive enough to think this gathering solved the world’s problems, not in this fraught age. But she was optimistic enough to want it to mean something.

That setting helps make this second chance at love, forced proximity premise work. In any other city, Simon and Lana’s situation might sound farfetched, but in 21st-century, late capitalist New York, where you can be a highly educated, middle-class professional with a solid job and still find it difficult to make rent on a liveable one bedroom anywhere near to your place of work, it makes sense. It’s why “His tiny one-bedroom felt dustier and smaller, more oppressive than ever” and at the same time, as “cramped” and “depressing” as it may be, felt like the best deal he was ever going to get. The economic motivations propelling Simon and Lana’s reconnection actually enhance the sense of realism.

What really cements this book’s appeal, though, are the highly individuated characters and relationships and the scenarios they find themselves in, which are interlaced with humor as well as angst and many, tiny signposts and building blocks of love.

In the beginning of House Rules for example, when Simon first glimpses Lana by chance at an open house, his reaction is one of disbelief along with something more, a sense of latent, lingering longing that comes from love lost but not forgotten:

Maybe he was dreaming. That would make more sense. Lana lived somewhere across the country, maybe the world. He didn’t keep track of her. She wasn’t on Facebook—and yes, he’d gone looking for her a couple of times. Once or twice he found mention of her in online newspapers. But she hadn’t kept up with the rest of their friends, hadn’t kept up with him, so that excused his occasional curiosity. They’d shared a life. And now, well, he didn’t think of her obsessively every day. It was a long time ago. In dreams he still saw her, though. On familiar and unfamiliar streets, in empty rooms like this one, in his bed—or rather, not in his small depressing bedroom, but a different bed, a better one that still somehow belonged to him.

Moments later, when Simon sees her in full he thinks “There, in the doorway, was his wife.” His wife. Not his ex-wife. He also thinks, “He was going to have to touch her. He was going to get to touch her.” I love this juxtaposition of thoughts.

This scene was character and relationship defining. It showed that while Lana was not a part of Simon’s present, she’s also not entirely relegated to his past. The feeling of unreality, the sense that he may have conjured her up in his mind, is a possibility because he still sees her “in dreams” and, notably, “in his bed.” For a couple embarking on an ostensibly platonic roommate arrangement, these words are meaningful. They create a delicious sense of anticipation for their reunion. Their reaquaintance proceeds along similar lines with each interaction, each sentence, each word carefully calibrated to show just how much they mean to each other as they settle into new circumstances and you’re just waiting for them to move past the awkwardness and give into a heady, brewing lust.

This passage also reflects a sense of the way we live now—this isn’t a book about texting or social media, but it accurately reflects the role technology plays in our most intimate relationships. The fact is that we don’t have to stay in touch or bug our friends and family to keep tabs on our exes these days to keep them alive in our hearts and minds in a palpable way. That shifts things. Anyone who’s ever gone to a high school or college reunion in the last decade can relate to this. If you’re on Facebook or have a Google habit, it’s easy to feel like you know what’s going on with someone even if it’s been years since you last laid eyes on them.

I also appreciated the specificity and grittiness of these characters. No one in this story is what you might call “easy”. Even their cat was a little out of reach, a little emotionally withholding when Lana adopted her. Muffin enjoys a solid character arc though. With time she grows into her role in their small but tight family unit, and when Lana needs comfort, Muffin is there: “The tabby probably sensed how unsettled everyone in the household was, and had finally decided it was all right to be affectionate and needy.”

What really makes these characters work so well, what makes them so loveable and compelling, is the quality and style of the writing, which combines humor and poignancy and is vivid and specific and gorgeous in its intimacy. There is a rhythm and cadence to it, an immediacy that makes it seem as though I’m witnessing these thoughts as they bubble up and spill out of Lana and Simon in a stream of consciousness. The words sound just like people think, so even though in third person I got the sense of being inside each character’s head. This is the kind of book I nodded my head through in recognition. It just all feels that real.

For example, when Lana and Simon start to renew their physical relationship and a flare up of Lana’s endometriosis slows things down between them, several disparate, warring thoughts run through her head:

She squeezed her thighs together and concentrated on the ache of her cramps. She wasn’t grateful for the now-dull pain. She would never go as far as that. But she needed space to think, and the gray edge of discomfort had been enough for her to want to preserve the border between her body and his. Another thing preventing her from sinking into him, another reminder of how hard she had to fight to keep herself intact, to keep herself in this place she’d worked too hard to get.

But she still wanted him. It was hard not to long for the comfort of him, of his arms around her, of the way he listened to her. She looked at the tray, still on her chair, at the medicine he’d gone out to find. She pulled the hot-water bottle out from under the duvet. It wasn’t as warm or all-encompassing as him, but she clung to its rubbery form for a minute.

The shower shut off. It was easy enough to think of him, his forehead pressed against the shower tiles the same way he’d leaned on her. His hair would be dark and slick, his lashes thick with moisture, his eyes closed as he remembered, as he stroked himself, as he thought of her.

Sigh. Nod. The yearning. The trepidation. The fragility. The anticipation. It’s all there on the page, and it’s brilliant and real, and made it impossible not to love and root for these two.

The flipside of that, however, is that this combination of intensity and tenuousness also makes the idea of a breach just intolerable once they really started to bond. It was, therefore, hard to accept the denouement, which temporarily places the relationship in crisis, and the seemingly sharp turn Lana makes which could potentially put an end to them as a couple. It seemed incongruous, both rushed and too reminiscent of the circumstances that pulled them apart in the first place. I didn’t see quite enough of the breadcrumbs that would lead me to have confidence in this new direction. It wasn’t quite a dream opportunity, and there were no rock-solid declarations of love preceding that crisis.

At the start, that sense of proportion is one of the book’s greatest strengths, that it’s about normal people. That also makes it harder, however, to expect one partner to feel confident about changing their life to accommodate the other in a short space of time. Realistic pacing and subtlety come up against the page/space constraints of the novella, which might be why things still felt a little unsettled at the point at which a major life decision had to be made. As a result, the leap of faith moment feels abrupt. I wanted more time with them. It was hard to trust that they had grown enough, that they were ready and knew how to love each other well enough. Lana at times also still seemed somewhat unmoored. She had learned to speak up for herself, to not make the mistake again of not communicating what she wanted. That’s good.

Click for vague plot spoilers

But I wasn’t sure why she would prioritize a less than ideal opportunity over the relationship they were still at the start of re-building.

The beginning, middle and conclusion all worked well. But as a result of these lingering doubts, the crisis point, during which one character had to make the decision to be all in and take a leap of faith for the other, seemed rushed and that faith was not entirely supported in the text.

Click for more specific plot-related spoilers

In the end, Simon says, “Lead the way” to Lana and makes a promise to “always follow.” This is a point of growth for Simon, who’s had substantial issues with control in the past. So they get a happy ever after that fits them as individuals and as a unit, grumpy cat and all. But I was still wondering how they got there. Why was Lena was again considering leaving him, and how did Simon find the strength and faith in their love?

That was the one thing that kept House Rules from being a total win for me. Nonetheless, it’s wonderful that supporting each other through the many uncertain parts and awkward transitions is how House Rules and really the trilogy as a whole define love. I very much enjoyed taking this journey.

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