‘Housemates’ Is a Remarkable Novel, Intimate, Expansive, and Full of Sight

Last week, when on a neighborhood walk with my girlfriend, my partner, my housemate, we spotted a family of raccoons. Or, rather, my housemate heard them and knowing how much I love critters, alerted me to their nearby presence.

We watched as the mom raccoon — if I am to assume gender in the animal kingdom — tried to teach her babies how to climb down a pole, to go from the roof to a trash bin of treasures.

It was thrilling and I whipped out my phone to capture the moment, hoping to still be filming when the babies finally made their way down. I filmed for over five minutes straight, steadying my phone, while looking away from the screen toward the reality that was so much more textured and compelling.

My housemate, however, only filmed a few moments on her own device. Three different instances of about twenty seconds during the twenty minutes we watched.

In the middle of the night, as my housemate slept and I read Housemates by Emma Copley Eisenberg, I checked instagram between chapters. My housemate had updated her story, uploaded her videos, each trimmed to fifteen seconds, each capturing more in their precision than any part of my extended five minute recording.

I love the way my housemate sees the world. I love how she’s changed how I see the world in our years together. She is the human equivalent of a film photo or celluloid. She reminds me why it is that when I get outside my own head long enough to make a movie rather than just writing one, I prefer to shoot on 16mm. Like my housemate, it forces me to see the world anew, to make a choice in how I see.

Housemates is a novel all about seeing. It’s about seeing through images and seeing through words. It’s also a love story, about falling for the way another person sees the world, the magic of realizing someone sees in a way that is different than you yet insistently compatible.

While the novel will question whether a story can have two protagonists, Housemates succeeds in doing just that. They are Leah, a fat masc Jewish writer from New York City, and Bernie, a thin tomboy femme photographer from rural Pennsylvania. They live in Philadelphia along with three other housemates including Leah’s girlfriend Alex.

But the novel starts with neither of our main characters. The nearly omniscient narrator is an older dyke whose path crosses Leah and Bernie’s only briefly. It’s a deft choice, allowing into the text several other ways of seeing — these characters, this story, our world.

When we look, really look, at a person or a place, nuance is inevitable. In that way, Housemates feels like a primal scream against cultures — both queer and straight — that insist on simplicity. “Bernie didn’t hate America,” Eisenberg writes. “That was exactly the problem. The more suffering that transpired in America, the more Bernie felt American, as if she were cut out to be part of a place that suffered. It was like belonging to a fantastically dysfunctional family from which she knew she would never be free.”

And yet, Eisenberg’s immense skill as a storyteller and a people-seer, allows this desire for nuance to make the story more radical, not less. She understands that to welcome in complexity is only worthy when accompanied by more work. There is a difference between the clearer picture of the latest iPhone update and the clearer picture of Bernie’s large format film photographs that can sometimes take hours for a single shot.

By approaching our world, our country, and the state of Pennsylvania, with this labored, generous seeing, Eisenberg covers topics ranging from the 2016 election to the Me Too Movement. These inclusions never feel forced, but rather casually true to the people populating her story. After all, these recent historical moments are not simply headline fodder; terms like fatphobia, transphobia, and patriarchy are not simply buzzwords to prove points. They are part of our daily lives. For better or worse, they are human. Housemates allows them to be.

I said that Housemates is a love story about meeting someone who changes the way you see the world. True to its depth, it also understand that people can change our perspectives who we do not love. Or who we love, but don’t like. Or who we once loved, but who we’ve grown beyond. This can be true of a parent, a teacher, a country. It can also be true of a friend or partner who we continue to love or who we love again. Like most things in our world, there’s no binary.

Emma Copley Eisenberg has written a remarkable novel and a reminder that it’s not just people who change our perspectives, but art. For me, Housemates was one such work of art. I can tell you that it’s funny and sexy and smart and well-written. But the truest compliment I can give is that it challenged me and changed me. It’s a book I know I’ll cherish for many years to come.


Housemates is now available

Before you go! Autostraddle runs on the reader support of our AF+ Members. If this article meant something to you today — if it informed you or made you smile or feel seen, will you consider joining AF and supporting the people who make this queer media site possible?

Join AF+!

Drew Burnett Gregory

Drew is a Brooklyn-based writer, filmmaker, and theatremaker. She is a Senior Editor at Autostraddle with a focus in film and television, sex and dating, and politics. Her writing can also be found at Bright Wall/Dark Room, Cosmopolitan UK, Refinery29, Into, them, and Knock LA. She was a 2022 Outfest Screenwriting Lab Notable Writer and a 2023 Lambda Literary Screenwriting Fellow. She is currently working on a million film and TV projects mostly about queer trans women. Find her on Twitter and Instagram.

Drew Burnett has written 550 articles for us.

4 Comments

  1. Looked this book up at my library after seeing you had reviewed it, Drew (but didn’t read the review!) — I blew through it like it was a fever, which I mean as a high compliment of its propulsion and immersion.

    It’s rare that a book can so explicitly thematize big questions about creating, and seeing the world (and ourselves), and what kinds of stories we tell, without feeling constructed, or like rarefied theory talk. But this novel asks and reveals so much while still remaining grounded and intimate, it still feels real (Station 11, in its very particular dystopian way, might be another success in this category, for me). Go read this book!

Contribute to the conversation...

Yay! You've decided to leave a comment. That's fantastic. Please keep in mind that comments are moderated by the guidelines laid out in our comment policy. Let's have a personal and meaningful conversation and thanks for stopping by!