By Rabbi Rachel Esserman
When I was growing up and my mother would talk about marriage, she would use the phrase “every pot has its lid.” That’s similar to the concept of bashert, that there is a person meant just for you. But how do you determine that? And what if the person you think is your bashert is someone your family opposes? Or how do you choose between two people, both of whom may feel like your bashert? These questions underlie two recent novels: “How To Find What You’re Not Looking For” by Veera Hiranandani (Kokila), which is aimed at tween audiences, and “Where It All Lands” by Jennie Wexler (Wednesday Books), which is directed at teenagers.
The plot of “How To Find What You’re Not Looking For” hinges on two elements: 1) in 1967, when the novel takes place, the Supreme Court ruling Loving v. Virginia struck down state laws that forbid interracial marriages, and 2) 12-year-old Ariel Goldberg’s family is Jewish. While her parents aren’t particularly observant, they do expect their two daughters, Ariel and her older sister Leah, to attend college and then marry someone Jewish. They know that it’s not easy living in a small town with few Jews, but that’s where Ariel’s father’s dream of having his own bakery came true. However, problems arise when Leah falls in love with Raj, whose family came to the U.S. from India. When Leah leaves home to be with Raj, her parents disown her.
The story, which is told through Ariel’s eyes, shows how difficult it is for her to understand why her family has broken apart. Ariel also desperately misses her sister: Leah always helped her with her homework, particularly writing, since the physical act of putting pen to paper has always been difficult. Ariel’s new teacher believes she has a disability that can be corrected, but her mother resists having her labeled as disabled for fear she’ll be placed in a different class. Plus, something is happening with the bakery, but Ariel’s parents refuse to confide in her.
“How To Find What You’re Not Looking For” is written in the second person singular, which is unusual and took a few chapters to get used to. However, Ariel’s path of discovery – about her family and herself – made for interesting reading. The novel also introduces readers to a time when social customs were undergoing rapid change. The novel’s resolution felt convincing, although it may not satisfy everyone.
While readers see the world through Ariel’s eyes in Hiranandani’s work, Wexler offers the perspectives of three characters in her intriguing “Where It All Lands.” Stevie Rosenstein, who is Jewish, is tired of being the new girl in town. Her father, a football coach, moves the family every year or two when he is hired by a different team. The one thing that remains the same is her love of music: she plays the trumpet and is hoping to major in music in college. On her first day at her latest school, she meets Drew Mason and Shane Murphy, who have been best friends for years. Both young men are attracted to Stevie, something that could potentially ruin their friendship. They decide to solve the problem of who will ask Stevie out by their tried and true method: they toss a coin. But that simple solution causes enormous problems as they realize their feelings for Stevie are deeper than expected.
What makes this novel different from other teen romance novels is that it’s really two stories in one: in the first section, Drew wins the coin toss, and in the second, Shane does. What happens next is both different and the same, but in an incredibly satisfying way. Reliving the story in the second version will get under readers’ skins because they’ll want to see if the novel’s very dramatic opening remains the same. The third section switches between the two stories and was extremely moving. What might have just been a gimmick ends up showing how true love shines, even when circumstances surrounding it change.