Celebrating Jewish Literature: Finding your life path

By Rabbi Rachel Esserman

Some novels are difficult to define because they combine elements of several genres. For example, “A Shot in the Dark” by Victoria Lee (Dell ) and “The Breakaway” by Jennifer Weiner (Atria Books) are definitely not rom-coms, although their plots contain a heavy dose of romance. The main characters in each are at a crossroad that forces them to make serious choices that will affect the course of their personal and professional lives. This is more than finding a partner: rather, they are looking to build meaningful lives, even if by doing so they remain single. 

The two characters in “A Shot in the Dark” – Elisheva Cohen and Wyatt Cole – are both wounded and trying to rebuild their lives. Ely, who grew up as a Chasidic Jew in Brooklyn, returns to New York City from California with a scholarship for an arts program that she sees as the next step for her mixed-media artistic career. Her life has not been easy: thrown out by her family as a teenager, she’s struggled with drug and alcohol addiction. But she found a path to recovery through her art and is looking forward to classes with Wyatt, a noted and reclusive artist. Her first night in New York with her new roommates ends with her going home with a very hot stranger – a trans male – for the best sex in her life.

Unfortunately, when she attends class the next day, it turns out that her hot date is none other than Wyatt, who says that not only can’t they continue their relationship, but she can’t take his class for ethical reasons. While, at first, this sounds like the perfect set-up for a rom-com, the novel takes a more serious note since Ely is not the only one trying to overcome her addictions. Wyatt, too, used drugs and alcohol to blunt the pain of being disowned by his father once he wanted to transition from female to male. Wyatt has slowly built his now-successful career, but has also avoided the limelight to protect himself. 

In addition its other pleasures, “A Shot in the Dark” offers some fascinating thoughts about the process of making art. Wyatt sees art as “a form of telepathy, really. You have an idea, or a feeling, and you try to get someone else – someone totally different from you, with different wants and fears and interests – to share you emotions, even if just for a moment. It doesn’t always work. But when it does, it’s the best experience in the entire world.” He also tells Ely, who is afraid of critical judgment, that “all the best art is like bleeding in front of strangers. It’s terrifying. ‘Vulnerable’ is a good word for it. Someone could slip in when you’re raw and aching and twist a knife right where it hurts the most.” 

“A Shot in the Dark” does a wonderful job creating characters who feel real and vulnerable. Readers should note that there are explicit descriptions of sex and the author offers the trigger warning that “this book contains vivid scenes of substance abuse.” But readers will also come away caring deeply for Ely and Wyatt, and rooting for them to find their artistic and personal paths.

While “A Shot in the Dark” deals with drug and alcohol addiction, “The Breakaway” focuses on health and body image. Although readers hear the voices of several characters, 33-year-old Abby Stern is the novel’s main focus. Unlike her successful siblings, Abby has not yet found her life path. She has jobs, rather than a career. She’s almost made her peace with her plus-size body, although her mother frequently encourages her to lose weight, even though Abby is healthy. Her real love is bicycling, so much so that she agrees to lead a 12-day cycling trip when its leader drops out. What prompted her decision is her relationship with her boyfriend, Mark Medoff. The two met at a weight loss camp as teenagers and then lost touch. When Abby and Mark met again, he was no longer overweight: in fact, he now eats very little and runs for miles every day to keep his weight down. However, he doesn’t cycle and has no interest in learning.

Mark is ready for them to take the next step, but Abby finds herself resisting leaving her apartment and moving in with him. She knows he loves her, but she’s a bit uncomfortable with his attitude about food, including whether he would feel comfortable with her keeping treats like ice cream in their shared housing. While she loves Mark, she also can’t help remember a night of passion that occurred just after they met and before they were seriously dating. That night in New York City remains vivid in her mind.

The opening day of the bike ride reads like a rom-com since Sebastian, her one-night stand, is one of the participants. Although the novel explores their feelings, that’s not the main focus of the trip. Sebastian, whose life has been a series of one-night stands, finds himself a social media sensation, but not in a good way. After a group of women post that all but one of them had slept with Sebastian, the post gains momentum as other women who slept with him chime in. That leaves Sebastian wondering about the course his life has taken, including how his parents’ troubling relationship might have affected him.

The group of riders begins to bond, but then a problem arises: the teenage girl on the ride has a secret, one she wants to keep from her mother who has accompanied her. Can she find someone to aid her and keep her secret? This mother/daughter dynamic is echoed in another part of the plot since Abby’s mother showed up for the trip without any notice, claiming she wants to spend time with her daughter. 

While the ending of “The Breakaway” might seem a bit too good to be true, the author does an excellent job portraying the different emotions her characters feel and their struggles to find their way in the world. There is a wonderful description of what it means to truly love someone: Sebastian notes that “she would have his heart in her hands, every day. He would give her the power to wound him, to hurt him, to make him not want to live. To leach all the color from the world; to steal all the savor from food; to turn minutes into hours and hours into days and the rest of his life into a painfully slow slog to its inevitable end.” Although that may sound a bit excessive, in the context of the novel, it works and is just one example of how the author makes readers care about her characters and root for their happiness.