Ruby Lang is one of the authors I started reading and fell in love with in 2019. I have enjoyed every one of her books, but I think House Rules is my favorite. It is a second chance at love romance between a long divorced middle aged couple who become roommates because real estate costs in New York City are awful. I received an arc from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.
Many years ago, Lana Kau and Simon Mizrahi were married. They were in the same music education program and living in the tiny rent stabilized apartment in Manhattan that Simon had inherited from his father. They were in love, but Simon was happy with how his life was going and Lana was not. They couldn’t figure out how to stay married and happy, so they divorced. In the present, Lana has returned to New York City for a job and is looking for a place to live. Simon is still in the same tiny rent controlled apartment and looking at other apartments half-heartedly. He doesn’t want to change, though staying where he is has become uncomfortable. Simon, in particular reminded me of the Anais Nin quote, “Life shrinks or expands in proportion to one’s courage.”
I don’t need or expect to identify with the protagonists in a book in order to empathize with them. I love reading about characters very different from me. But sometimes I read a book with characters that articulates a part of myself that I rarely see reflected and I just fall in love. In House Rules, Lang has set her protagonists, Lana and Simon, in their early to mid 40’s with that combination of regret, confidence, and awareness of the limits of the future that comes with middle age. It’s not so much a sense of getting old as it is feeling the weight of the consequences (good and bad) of your past choices and understanding that your future choices are not limitless. Simon’s life has gone on mostly as planned with financial and professional stability. Lana has traveled, studied and left being a musician for being a chef. She has acquired specialized skills, but lacks financial and professional stability. I love so much that Lang shows that there are virtues and drawbacks to the choices they have each made and both are worthy of respect.
For me, the star of this book is Lana. She is a middle aged woman with a dark sarcastic heart. She is both sure of who she is and uncertain of how she will be received. More than Simon, she is aware of the weight and damage of other people’s expectations and has developed the courage to disappoint people and to ask for what she wants, when she knows she may be rejected.
Then Lana said, “I told myself after—after we separated I would always ask for what I needed, no matter how hard it was, no matter how long it took to work up to it, no matter how afraid I was of the answer. I’m still trying to do that.”
I partly love Simon because he loves Lana. I recognize that I judge him a little more harshly because my first response to change is also a resounding no. Simon has the biggest growth arc in the book, but he needs it the most. He has been comfortable and comfort doesn’t always encourage growth.
I always knew you were amazing,” he continued softly. “I think young, arrogant me congratulated myself a lot for seeing so much in you. But I feel foolish now, because I realize I didn’t see half of it. I didn’t see how much you work, how dedicated you can be. How, given half the chance, you can make something ordinary—flour, salt, water—make it move for you, transform it into something else entirely. I didn’t see half of anything in you. It came out of left field. And I guess the thing I feel now is strange, because I feel like I don’t know this whole part of you. I’m ashamed for how little I realized about you.”
Simon and Lana rediscover each other and eventually start sleeping together again, including some steamy couch sex. Lang allows her characters to be complicated. She allows the realities of the world we live in to shape her character’s lives. Apartments in New York City are expensive, restaurant jobs are physically demanding, change is hard and scary, and it’s ok not to get it right the first time.
I hope Ruby Lang has a long romance writing career ahead of her because I love her books. I feel like this is her most confident book. You don’t have to have read the first two Uptown books, Playing House and Open House to appreciate House Rules, but you should anyway.
House Rules is out February 10th and you should definitely pre-order it.
Thank you to teresalectro for her feedback and edits.