Housemates

A Novel

About the Book

NATIONAL BESTSELLER • Two young housemates embark on a road trip to discover themselves in this “exceptional, keenly observed meditation on art and love” (People) in a fractured America, by the award-winning author of The Third Rainbow Girl

“Tender, introspective, and at times delightfully funny, this is the perfect book to bring on a road trip.”—Time (LGBTQ+ Books to Read for Pride)


A Most Anticipated Book of 2024: Los Angeles Times, Harper’s Bazaar, Lit Hub, Debutiful, LGBTQ Reads, The Rumpus, Lilith, Hey Alma, Them, Kirkus Reviews

What does it feel like, standing in the moments that will mark your life?

When Bernie replies to Leah’s ad for a new housemate in Philadelphia, the two begin an intense and defiantly uncategorizable friendship based on a mutual belief in their art, and one another. Both aspire to capture the world around them: Leah through her writing; Bernie through her photography.

After Bernie’s former photography professor, the renowned yet tarnished Daniel Dunn, dies and leaves her a complicated inheritance, Leah volunteers to accompany Bernie to his home in rural Pennsylvania, turning the jaunt into a road trip with an ambitious mission: to document America through words and photographs.

What ensues is a journey into the heart of the nation, bringing the housemates into conversation with people from all walks of life—“the absurd dreamers and failures of this wide, wide country”—as they try to make sense of the times they are living in. Along the way, Leah and Bernie discover what it means to chase their own ideas and dreams, and to embrace what they are capable of both romantically and artistically.

Warm and insightful, Housemates is a story of youth and freedom—a glorious celebration of queer life, and how art and love might save us all.
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Praise for Housemates

“Tender, introspective, and at times delightfully funny, this is the perfect book to bring on a road trip.”Time, ‘15 LGBTQ+ Books to Read for Pride’
 
“[An] exceptional, keenly observed meditation on art and love.”People
 
“A contemporary, queerer take on the American dream.”—Marie Claire
 
“Tender, nuanced, and hilarious.”—Oprah Daily

“[A] wise and beautiful and gorgeously gay exploration of America, art, and the rugged vast country that is love itself.”—Sarah Thankam Mathews, author of All This Could Be Different

“A beautiful novel about art, community, and connection.”—Rachel Khong, New York Times bestselling author of Real Americans

“Emotionally rich and quietly thought-provoking, this is simply a stunning debut.”Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

“Sumptuous . . . Once Eisenberg revs the engine, she reaches luminous heights. Readers will count themselves lucky to go along for the ride.”Publishers Weekly

“A debut novel that’s part The Price of Salt and part Just Kids, in which two friends journey across America in pursuit of art and love.”—Electric Literature

“Eisenberg’s fiction debut feels like a swim in a heated pool after a long journey.”Los Angeles Times, “10 Books to Add to Your Reading List in May”

“A genuine book about art, love, friendship, chosen family, and America in this moment.”Harper’s Bazaar, “Best Beach Reads of 2024”

“Gorgeous . . . A novel as full as life itself, about art-making and love and friendship and making a way in the world, complicated, funny, questioning, moral.”—Elizabeth McCracken, author of The Hero of This Book

“The brilliant, queer, abundant, art-drunk, soulful, sexy American road-trip novel we’ve needed for so long.”—Stacey D’Erasmo, author of The Complicities

“A perfect novel about making art, making a life, and how to do those things at the same time, with other people.”—Hilary Leichter, “A Year in Reading” at The Millions

“Ripe and undeniably rich . . . Emma Copley Eisenberg is a brilliant writer, and Housemates is superb.” —Kristen Arnett, New York Times bestselling author of Mostly Dead Things

“Warm and inviting . . . Eisenberg captures the complexity of both people and places with precision and generosity.”—Sara Nović, New York Times bestselling author of True Biz

“A novel of young queer artists making love, poems, photographs and haunted houses.”—Sarah Schulman, author of Let the Record Show

“Radiant and invigoratingly truthful, Housemates invites us to think about the community and country that are possible when we love.”—Megha Majumdar, New York Times bestselling author of A Burning
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Excerpt

Housemates

I.

Where I lived then, there was no photography, no movies, no books, no art of any kind.

It was enough to make me wonder why I had ever spent so long on it. Art! It had once been my whole day. My whole experience of living.

People talk about how time moves slowly, but I had the opposite problem that season, a period of great depression that began in 2017 and lasted three years. During that time, I was always turning behind me to see where the morning had gone, the day, the month, the year. I watched videos of capybaras pushing their noble noses through various bodies of water or of beavers whose webbed hind feet slapped the concrete as they walked, semi-upright and pigeon-toed, with carrots wedged between their small, articulated hands and their toothful mouths. There was one over ambitious beaver in particular who I loved to watch as he continuously lost a single carrot from his hand/mouth bundle and stopped to pick it up, only to lose it, or a different carrot, again, moments later and slightly farther on in his travels. You would think at a certain point that the beaver would learn, that he would let one carrot go in service of retaining the rest and his general well-being. But no. He never learned.

I felt like that beaver: the more I tried to take on, the more I dropped—emails for example, just simple offers of contact or meaningless photography work. I had my Social Security checks to cash, I had my house to move around in, and I had my body to feed—the only carrots I could carry. I also liked watching videos people had recorded of themselves walking around their neighborhoods in Philadelphia, videos in which nothing happened but their feet scuffing pavement and the world going by. In this way only, I left my house.

A whole day could pass just in avoiding my office closet with its film and negatives that belonged to me as well as its books and papers that belonged to—what should I call her? I’ll call her what they called me in her obituary, written almost fifteen years earlier in the paper of record: “housemate.” Other things they wrote in The Housemate’s obituary: aged 54, acute myeloid leukemia; there are no survivors. I resented this last part not just because I felt that I had survived her, but also because it made her sound alone when she was not. She had friends didn’t she? And former students, who loved her too.

You might be asking why I sank into such a Miss Havisham-esque state during that season when, as I’ve said, The Housemate died long before and to this I say: I don’t know. Sometimes it just works that way. For many years you are fine, and then whammo, you are not. There was the 2016 election, yes, and the general state of the world, and the fact that I had dramatically decreased my work as a photographer, thinking, I am nearly seventy years old and it’s time for me to enjoy my life. But none of this explains the way I felt.

I felt like a stuffed animal that had lost its stuffing. I spent my time tending to other closets of lesser importance, taking out all the contained objects and sorting them into categories according to their use and usefulness to me. As I worked, I listened to the news, or sometimes—the only art I could tolerate—to musicals. I was especially partial to Sondheim, particularly Into the Woods, and particularly numbers that featured The Witch. Careful before you say, listen to me, I would sing along with her. Children will listen.

Next I put all the useless-to-me things into boxes and called the thrift store on the avenue to send someone to pick them up. Finally, I bought new things from the everything website in order to absorb the space freed up by the things I’d just gotten rid of. This was an important step and a step that I savored; the only thing that brought me joy. In the story of an object and me, no time was ever so good as when its digital likeness and that of many others of great similarity were lined up vertically and auditioning to be mine. I scrolled slowly, considering. I took great pains to select the exact right scrubby sponge, the exact right set of black shoelaces, the perfect knit winter hat. I read all the reviews.

When the new things were delivered, the device my friend’s kid had set up in my kitchen made an ominous sound which was really just the sound of another living person doing a job they were underpaid to perform, a person I would never speak to or meet. After that sound was another—the real sound of a truck or van starting up again and driving away down my street toward the avenue. It was in this manner, too, that I made groceries appear at my door.

I still live on this same street, a two-way where the cars go too fast despite all the stop signs and the houses are attached in rows with porches you can look down. I live in West Philadelphia, a shtetl most people have only heard of in the context of its cameo in the credits of a TV show starring Will Smith or because it contains the campus of an Ivy League university with a destructive hunger for real estate. I have lived here for much too long, so long that to fetch a half gallon of milk or go to the bank involves five to seven emotionally gutting interactions.

Normally I can handle this, but that season I just couldn’t. It wasn’t just that I was afraid to run into people I used to know, but rather that I felt the neighborhood to be a graveyard of my past lives. Here the fancy yoga studio which used to be a camera store where I’d chat with the scruffy owner about lenses and buy film when I was still working as a photographer. Here the house that once belonged to a colleague of The Housemate’s in the English department at the University, a woman with excellent taste in sweaters and ceramics and who, at parties, would serve cheddar cheese and rosemary crackers on the most beautiful rectangular trays. Everyone at those parties knew that The Housemate and I were an item but that didn’t stop them from looking at us out of the sides of their eyes, whether because we were lesbians or because she was a professor, though not mine, and I a graduate student, I can’t say. We were exactly the same age anyway; she had been one of those wunderkinds who’d graduated high school at fifteen. Let’s give them something to look at, The Housemate would say, holding up a loaded cracker and awaiting the opening of my mouth.

There the building containing the first apartment The Housemate and I ever shared. There the fancy grocery store which used to be a soul food restaurant where The Housemate and I would go for long conversations about projects we wanted to do together. There was a black dog with a flat snout who liked to lie on its checked floor in slants of sun.

We could pick a little operation, nothing but a Ferris wheel and a funnel cake stand that moves from town to town and follow them, she said to me in that restaurant once, while leaning down to pet the dog. She had an idea which was new then but is old now which was to record people’s voices speaking and have that be the result of the work instead of a book. The tapes she made on those trips are still in my office closet to this day.

And so on.

It’s funny, in a non-haha kind of way, considering everything that came after—how the pandemic would force us all into confinement, alone in our homes—that I was ahead of the curve by several years during that time, creating the conditions of isolation for myself. So it was a fluke in a way, very unlikely and totally by chance, that I was even out of my house for long enough to see Bernie and Leah that day in the coffee shop.

Why did I follow them back to their house? Was it only because they were so beautiful and so young? No, comes the answer. It was also because there were two of them and they had that map.

It was about a year into my artless season, May of 2018, when I woke to a terrible pain in my back and a leak in my moka pot. No matter how I screwed and unscrewed the thing, water dripped out and the coffee would not burble up to where I could get it. I watched some videos, first about moka pots and then about other things. I looked on the everything website but the new pot wouldn’t arrive until the following day. Plus walking, I knew, was the only thing that would resolve the back issue. I loitered in the vestibule of my house for what might have been an hour, futzing with the ribboned laces on my shoes in hesitation. Then, suddenly, I whipped open the door and was outside.

It was hot, the world having apparently skipped spring and gone straight to summer. The tree my neighbor had planted in a bucket was now too large for the bucket and the church had changed its flags. At the avenue, I took the dreaded turn left, eastward toward the University. After a few blocks of seeing no one I recognized, I felt emboldened and slowed my walk, breathing through my nose. I kept my eyes straight ahead and when I reached the anarchist coffee shop, I decided to chance it, getting in line behind a bosomy person with a thigh tattoo of a rat eating a piece of pizza. The tattoo peeked out from where her pants (very short) ended and her socks (very tall) began.

About the Author

Emma Copley Eisenberg
Emma Copley Eisenberg is a queer writer of fiction and nonfiction. Her first book, The Third Rainbow Girl: The Long Life of a Double Murder in Appalachia, was named a New York Times Notable Book and was nominated for an Edgar Award, a Lambda Literary Award, and an Anthony Award, among other honors. Her fiction has appeared in Granta, McSweeney’s, VQR, American Short Fiction, and other publications. Raised in New York City, she lives in Philadelphia, where she co-founded Blue Stoop, a community hub for the literary arts. More by Emma Copley Eisenberg
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