Queering the classic American road trip

Housemates by Emma Copley Eisenberg

4 minute read
Book cover. Title above in blue, over a graphic of West Philly rowhouses & a green shape like a path leading to a rising sun

Emma Copley Eisenberg’s debut novel Housemates takes the classic American road trip story and turns it on its head, refusing to give us yet another tortured male artist finding himself On the Road. Instead, Eisenberg places two young queer people at the heart of the story, allowing queer love, art, and community to take center stage in a world that all too often hears only of queer pain.

The novel opens with an unnamed narrator who entered a self-imposed exile after the death of her nebulously titled “housemate”. On the day we meet her, she has decided to brave the outside world again and go for a walk. It is here we meet the protagonists. The narrator walks into the “anarchist coffee shop” and encounters Bernie and Leah, whom she initially describes as people who look like a “thin girl” and a “fat boy”. The narrator is entranced by the two, and through a twist of magical realism, follows them home to narrate the rest of their journey together. This narrative device did not entirely work for me, nor did it seem to pay off in the end, but it does not matter—the introduction is short, and once we enter Bernie and Leah’s emotionally rich lives, we do not want to leave.

“Queer preferred”

Bernie meets Leah when she answers an ad for a new roommate: “Four Swarthmore grads, looking for a fifth roommate … Queer preferred (we all are).” Bernie moves in and is, in many ways, the odd man out: she is less concerned with the house chore wheel and social justice mores than with scraping up enough money with her jobs at a coffee shop and library to pay her rent. But despite—or perhaps because—of her differences, Leah is drawn to Bernie, as if she has been waiting for someone different to spur her to action.

Both Bernie and Leah are at a standstill in their creative lives. Bernie is a photographer, though she hasn’t taken photos since a disturbing revelation about her mentor. Leah is a graduate student and writer working an unfulfilling job at a local paper. They are poised in that messy beginning when the time before us feels overwhelming and confusing. When we ask, “What are we going to do with our lives? With our art?”

With the help of a complicated inheritance and Leah’s graduate program, the two embark on a Pennsylvania road trip, traversing a state so hotly contested each political cycle but so rarely observed with care; so rarely seen through the perspective of young queer people.

Staying open to the world

Bernie and Leah’s adventure is studded with those serendipitous and seemingly magical encounters that occur when you’re young and in love and open to the world around you: a young Amish hitchhiker, a detour to an apple orchard that leads to a gay bar. They are the type of encounters that make you believe that the world, and the people within it, may be both more complicated and benevolent than you initially believed. Eisenberg seems to be asking, “Can we stay open to the world long enough to really see it?”

Though Bernie and Leah set out on an artistic project together, their journey becomes about much more: reclaiming your vision after it has been stripped, and allowing yourself to be loved and touched in a world that says you don’t deserve it. Bernie and Leah are free and wild and do not buckle to the men who seek to keep them small, quiet, and invisible. They are big—in body, in photographs, in ambition—and they do not sacrifice each other or their partnership along the way.

What you deserve

This book felt familiar to me in many ways and not only because I live in West Philly, where Bernie and Leah begin their journey, but also because I was once a young budding queer person trying to make sense of the world and my place in it. I too fell in love with my roommate, and I too am trying to be an artist in a world that does not always make it easy to do so. Bernie and Leah do not make any of this look easy, but they do make it look fun.

With Housemates, Eisenberg has taken the harsh reality of living in 21st-century America and offered a soft place to land—a place that does not ignore such realities but rather finds tenderness within them. In Bernie and Leah’s striving, we find hope that maybe we too deserve to find joy and love. Yes you, dear reader, Eisenberg seems to be saying: you deserve everything you want and more, and no, you’re not too late or too old or too scared. Bernie says, “I’m too old … for this feeling.” No, Leah says, the first time they kiss: “It’s just the right time.”

What, When, Where

Housemates. By Emma Copley Eisenberg. New York, NY: Hogarth, May 28, 2024. 352 pages, hardcover; $29. Get it here.

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