House Rules by Ruby Lang
ROOMMATE WANTED to share a gorgeous sun-filled apartment in Central Harlem. Must love cats. No ex-husbands or wives need apply.
Seventeen years ago, different dreams pulled Simon Mizrahi and Lana Kuo apart. But when Lana takes a position as a chef back in Manhattan, her apartment search puts her right in her ex-husband’s path. Music teacher Simon is also hunting for a new place to live, and when Lana proposes they be platonic roomies, well…it’s not the worst idea he’s ever heard.
A sunny uptown two-bedroom sounds far more appealing than the cramped, noisy space where he’s currently struggling to work. Still, Simon has seen firsthand that Lana’s a flight risk, so he agrees on a trial basis.
Three months. With strict boundaries.
Living together again feels wonderfully nostalgic, but when the ex-couple’s lingering feelings rise to the surface, the rules go out the window.
Of course, chemistry was never their problem. But while Simon’s career feels back on solid footing, Lana is still sorting out what she wants. With their trial period soon coming to an end, they’ll have to decide if their living arrangement was merely a sexy trip down memory lane or a reunion meant to last.
After I read Kaetrin’s review of the novella that starts this series, somehow I lost track of keeping up with the new releases. Somehow I even managed to miss the cat on the cover of this book. I know right? What was wrong with me? The blurb sounded as if this would be cute but the reality is a bit different. And better.
This story has forced proximity, second chances, roommates, discovering the new you, and a cat. Simon and Lana were young and in love and married once. They also somehow managed to live crammed into a 500 square foot, rent controlled but more-than-slightly crumbling apartment in NYC. That in-your-faceness still didn’t reveal everything about each of them and they ended up separating and getting divorced. Time softened the ache and when Simon sees Lana during an apartment hunting trip, he can feel sadness instead of bitterness.
To his surprise, he gets a call from Lana offering him halfsies on a wonderful apartment she’s found. She can’t quite manage the entire rent but if he’s willing to finally abandon his old place, they can try living together again. Just roomies who trust each other and nothing else.
I was willing to forgive both of them their youthful break-up because it was 15 years ago, they’re in their early 40s now and more mature, and their split wasn’t due to cheating. Instead Lana felt smothered in her choice of study – which incidentally was also Simon’s, and was unable to express what she felt, wanted, and needed due to her youthfulness. It’s all about communication and Lana didn’t know how to tell Simon why she was in such turmoil. No, it’s not a perfectly blameless split but it’s one that allowed me to root for them. Lana feels that it was her own personal failure while she knows Simon views it as his. Years apart now allows her to understand where they went wrong.
Let me say I adored the fact that Lana and Simon are nearing middle age. Caffeine can be your friend or your enemy and an afternoon cup might be needed to stay up past eight pm. Muscles don’t do things effortlessly anymore and a lot of warm ups and arm braces might be required. Lana also knows that her profession, while it is something she enjoys and has become good at doing, is not something she can keep doing in the intense atmosphere of a restaurant for too many more years. She’s discovered she has no interest in going out with her younger coworkers and doing that “bonding shit.” Her bed calls her much more strongly.
Their ages have allowed both Lana and Simon to mature and change from the people they once knew though Simon, however, needs to be kicked out of his rut a little. Some things are the same – Simon remembers how Lana always sliced oranges while she knows just the amount of milk he prefers in his coffee. Other things are different. While Simon was bewildered about why Lana quit music, he sees in her new profession a woman who is confident and highly skilled. Yay, that Lana has become a little more blunt and willing to speak her mind. Simon is surprised when she admits that he’s the best she could find to share the apartment but he wasn’t her first choice.
They work out a division of the shelves, quiet hours, and to split the other costs. Their differing hours allow them time to slowly get used to living together again. Plus the place has a washer/dryer in the bathroom – something that makes Simon moan when he learns it. He slowly acknowledges that he was set in his ways and this move might have been good for him. He can even tolerate the cat Lana wants to get and his niece ends up naming. Then something brings them a little closer back together and Simon sees that he still cares for Lana, that honestly he’s never quite stopped.
Since Lana discovers that she still has some feelings for Simon, they fall into a physical relationship while still outwardly clinging to the idea that they’re just roomies with an apartment rental contract expiration date. But while feelings are growing, I like that not everything is rainbows and fluffy bunnies. Lana and Simon still need to work some things out both from their past divorce and as the people they are now.
I enjoyed the way that diversity is easily mixed into the story. The characters are of Asian ethnicity, or Jewish, or non-binary, or African American but that’s part of who they are instead of all of who they are. The glimpse into life inside a busy, high end restaurant was fascinating but also a bit depressing, especially the scene when Lana and her female colleagues discuss the tribulations of their gender and diversity in getting jobs, chances, and advancements. The secondary characters aren’t just background blurs but have places in the story as well as helping Lana and Simon work out issues in their relationship.
I could have used a little bit more in the end in terms of Lana and Simon’s relationship. It’s not that they don’t think about it but they mention needing to talk and seem to still be working things out when suddenly they’re ready to try getting back together with even more change in their lives. I wasn’t quite accepting that they’d talked as much as they should and weren’t just flinging themselves into the possibility. Simon’s protestation that Lana makes him feel he can be better and want to be a better man plus the epilogue helps though. B-