Archetype: Escort/Courtesan/Sex Worker
The Roommate is a sex-positive, contemporary romance debut that has given me something I’ve been searching for : romantic leads who are involved in sex work (minus all of the shame and slut-shaming). I’m happy to say that The Roommate delivered on that front, and the romance was rather cute, too, despite being slightly different than what I was expecting.
Clara is having a late-stage rebellious phase. She’s a socialite from a wealthy, conservative family and has led a rather sheltered life. When she gets the chance to run off to Los Angeles and become the roommate to her lifelong crush (and give up an internship at the Guggenheim), she takes it. Unfortunately, that crush has done a bit of a bait and switch. His band is about to go on tour and he apparently has no problems leaving Clara to manage settling into the West Coast on her own. OH AND LIVE WITH A STRANGE MAN SHE’S NEVER MET.
If it were me, that friendship would be over.
Clara is upset and briefly entertains the idea of going back to New York, but decides to stick it out in LA for the summer. While having an understandable pity party at her new apartment, she meets Josh, the stranger who is also her roommate now:
The faded wallpaper exuded kitschy charm, fighting for her affection, but she couldn’t shake the crushing weight of her disappointment. Clara wiped off the seat of the sofa before sitting down.
“So this is how it feels to be well and truly fucked.”
“I get that a lot,” said a low voice behind her.
Talk about an entrance!
Josh really is adorable and has that boy next door charm. But, you know, he could still be a serial killer. Clara does a cursory Google and finds out that Josh is an adult film star. To sum up: he catches her watching one of his videos, offers to give her a demonstration, and they have a hot fling.
I’m struggling to describe Clara because I feel like “prudish” isn’t an apt description, but she’s very much the kind of woman who was never really taught about her body. A lot of us have a complicated relationship centering our own pleasure or even knowing where to begin. That’s Clara, and Josh senses that she’s still exploring her sexuality. Those two things converge outside the bedroom when Clara and Josh embark on a business venture: she provides the funds and he provides the insight to produce adult videos that balance sexual exploration, education, and a woman’s pleasure.
Though the setup is worthy of a spicy montage with lots of upbeat synth, their business idea quickly gains a rival. Black Hat Studios, the company that currently holds Josh’s contract, is working to undermine their success and blackmail Josh into signing a new contract.
Honestly, it’s not where I thought the book was going and while I fully support Josh and Clara’s ultimate goal, the blackmail plot wasn’t my favorite. I would have much preferred focusing on Clara’s shedding of the shame and shackles of her upbringing, where reputation and appearances are prized and emphasized. That aspect of her character arc seems more aligned with the overall message of destigmatizing sex and sex work. If you’re curious whether Clara’s investment affects her family on the East Coast, or if that conflict is explored at all, the answer is no.
I wanted more for Clara when it came to navigating her privileged, sheltered upbringing and the way it stunted her own self-discovery. A friend of mine read this at the same time and expressed frustrations with some of Clara’s decisions, namely moving across the country for a man and giving up a great opportunity. But as someone who made a few bad decisions based on men in my early twenties (Clara is older than that), I get it. For me, Clara’s neuroses regarding her family never really materialize in ways that affect the romance. With all the worrying she does, it seemed like foreshadowing to a big confrontation that ultimately never happens.
Despite wishing for more resolution for conflicts that were halfheartedly introduced, I really did enjoy seeing Clara and Josh together. They’re opposites, but deep down, they’re still two goobers who really do like each other, which is something I think a lot of romance readers are really drawn to right now. People who are nice to one another?! What?! That’s porn in and of itself right now. Someone fan me!
Josh falls into beta hero cinnamon roll territory, who is incredibly in touch with his emotions and the emotions of his partner. He strikes a good balance between sweet and sexy; it’s the magic combination to get Clara to loosen up her typically tightly wound personality.
The next book, The Intimacy Experiment, features Naomi (who is a GODDESS amongst us mere mortals). She’s a porn star who helped co-found Josh and Clara’s start-up and is teaming up with a hot rabbi for a seminar on “modern intimacy.” I’m honestly ecstatic that the series will continue its exploration of sex work and sex workers.
When it comes to The Roommate, the biggest question is whether it lives up to the hype and I think it really depends on what you think you’re getting into. Is it a story that focuses on the heroine’s sexual self-exploration? Not enough for my tastes: the blackmail plot against Josh and Clara’s worries about social fallout that never materializes overshadow that part of the story, which was the part I most enjoyed. But is The Roommate a sex-positive, sexy, rompy rom-com? Yes, it is definitely that!