By Rabbi Rachel Esserman
I got a little carried away recently when asking for review copies of rom-coms. It’s just that these novels sounded interesting and different enough from each other that I wanted to read them all. One author always features characters who have health problems, something that resonates with me because I’ve been there. Another has a cute meet, along with a great plot and some serious (and fun) sexual content. The third features an unusual character for a rom-com: an Orthodox young woman and the specific problems she faces. The fourth focuses on two Jews of color, noting the difficulties they sometimes face in the Jewish community. The fifth? Well, that one was pure fun because I just couldn’t resist its title. You’ll learn why below.
One reason I love Jean Meltzer’s novels is that all her female characters have a chronic illness with which they must learn to live. In the case of Avital Cohen, one of the two main characters in “Kissing Kosher” (Mira), that illness leaves her with chronic pelvic pain. That’s the main reason she gave up her career as a photographer and now works at the family business, Best Babka in Brooklyn. But Meltzer not only acknowledges physical pain: she’s able to channel emotional pain, the type Ethan Lippmann feels after losing his parents when he was young and had to live with an abusive grandfather. That grandfather has forced him to go undercover at Best Babka in order to steal its most famous recipe as revenge for something that occurred decades before.
While this might make ‘Kissing Kosher” sound like a serious novel, not a rom-com, the beauty of Meltzer’s work is that she manages to offer thoughtful moments without sacrificing humor. Of course, Avital and Ethan are going to fall for each other, even though neither wants to admit it at first. And naturally, there will be numerous mishaps and potential disastrous discoveries, which are extremely funny. What makes this all work, though, is that the characters – even those in emotional or physical pain – are looking for ways to live a good life, even if only within the possibilities of their illness. As Avital notes, chronic pain is “part of my identity. Acknowledging that isn’t a moral failure. It’s not me trying to get attention, or wanting to be depressive, either. It’s simply me describing the reality of my life. Of my day. It just is. And I have to acknowledge that... I have to accept it as part of who I am going forward in order to make peace with it.”
“Kissing Kosher” works as a great, funny rom-com. It also serves as a serous and wonderful look at living life with an illness. As with her prior two works, “The Matzah Ball” and “Mr. Perfect on Paper,” this one comes highly recommended. (To see The Reporter’s reviews of Meltzer’s previous works, visit www.thereportergroup.org/book-reviews/off-the-shelf-looking-for-romance and www.thereportergroup.org/book-reviews/off-the-shelf-searching-for-romance-intellect-vs-emotion.)
“Business or Pleasure”
Chandler Cohen is having a really bad day: not only did the author of a book she ghostwrote not recognize her name, but her rare attempt at a one-night stand turns into the worse sex she’s ever had. At least, fortunately, she’ll never have to see him again. However, since “Business or Pleasure” by Rachel Lynn Solomon (Berkley Romanc) is a rom-com, readers know exactly what’s going to happen. The important meeting with the person who wants her to ghostwrite his memoir is, of course, Finn Walsh, her one-night stand.
Chandler and Finn have one thing in common: neither has achieved their career goals. Chandler wanted to be a journalist, but, after a promising start, she’s unable to find a full-time job. To pay her bills, she began ghostwriting, something she does well, but which is not her dream job. Finn has had little success as an actor after appearing on a cult TV show about werewolves and now spends his time traveling across the country to appear at fan conventions. Chandler failed to recognize him because she’s never watched the show, although she soon finds out just how popular it still is. When she tells Finn the reason she left his hotel room, he’s unhappy (that’s an understatement) and that feeling doesn’t quit after he talks to former lovers and discovers they felt the same. Chandler, who has studied human sexuality, offers to help him learn to be a better lover – on a purely professional basis, of course. This being a rom-com, readers already know that will change.
“Business or Pleasure” contains a lot of hot sex, but also has some great characters whose quirks are fun to read about. The work’s minor characters add to the pleasure: I loved Chandler’s parents and Finn’s mother, who became a rabbi as a second career. The novel also offers an interesting view of millennials as they discover the real world is not the one they were promised as children.
Imagine 10 years of matchmakers offering you 10 years of horrible dates. Although 29-year-old Penina, a member of the Orthodox community, longs for love and marriage, she’s come to realize that may never happen. Normally for a member of her community, that list would include children, but as readers of “Unorthodox Love” by Heidi Shertok (Alcove Press) learn, Penina is physically unable to have children, which makes her less than prime marriage material in the Orthodox world. It also means that her dates are usually much older or have emotional problems.
Penina tries to appreciate the life she has: she spends time with her sister’s children, her fashion advice on Instagram has a modest following and she volunteers at a local hospital. She also has a job working at a jewelry store she enjoys – that is, until the owner becomes ill and his son, Sam, begins to run the business. Although Sam is attractive, he is not Orthodox, and the two clash over their approach to the business. Those clashes/arguments are the funniest parts of the book. However, when Penina learns that her sister and family are in danger of losing their home, and she’s offered a way to help them, she has to make some difficult decisions about how she wants to live her life.
Although “Unorthodox Love” is definitely a rom-com – and a fun one at that – it does offer a serious look at how women who are unable to have children may find life in the Orthodox community difficult. Penina is a great character, even for those of us who would never follow her fashion advice (and she offers plenty of it).
“Thank You for Sharing”
Novels about Jews of Color are still relatively rare; rom-coms about Jews of Color are even rarer. That’s one of the reasons I asked for a review copy of “Thank You for Sharing” by Rachel Runya Katz (St. Martin’s Griffin), which features the points-of-view of two main characters: Liyah Cohen-Jackson (Jewish/Black) and Daniel Rosenberg (Jewish/Korean). While their Jewishness only plays a small role in the work, it does inform the characters’s lives. However, it is the fact that, 14 years after breaking off their friendship at a Jewish summer camp, they meet on a plane. That meeting does not go well and they both hope never to see each other again. Since this is a rom-com, readers know that’s exactly what will happen.
In fact, they find themselves forced to collaborate together when Daniel’s marketing firm is hired to do a campaign for the museum where Liyah works. The two must find a way to deal with their past, something they basically manage to do, although they don’t share the worst parts of their lives at first: the death of Daniel’s father the previous year and the traumatic experience that changed the way Liyah views the world. Although neither wants to admit it, they are attracted to each other: the question becomes whether they can overcome their past and look toward the future.
“Thank You for Sharing” offers a mixture of seriousness and comedy, although sometimes, it focuses more on the former. Liyah can come across as very prickly and, at times, almost nasty. Readers do learn why, which gives the work an additional dimension, but does make it feel more like a romance novel than a full-fledged rom-com.
“My Roommate is a Vampire”
How could a book with that title not get my attention? Then I noticed its main character, Cassie Greenberg, had a Jewish sounding name and, after searching the web, I found it tagged on the Goodreads website as having a Jewish character. Alas, “My Roommate is a Vampire” by Jenna Levine (Berkley Romance) has no specific Jewish content, but there was also nothing that said Cassie isn’t Jewish and that was good enough for me.
Cassie’s life is not going well: she’s unable to find a job as an art teacher because her artistic vision is not one appreciated by most high schools. She works several dead-end jobs, but still can’t make her rent, meaning that she needs to move again. When a sounds-too-good-to-be-true ad for a roommate appears Cassie knows she doesn’t have much choice, but to apply. Her roommate, Frederick J. Fitzwilliam, does seem a bit strange: he’s very formal, has some unusual rules and a weird sense of decorating, but Cassie decides to accept his offer to move in. It doesn’t spoil anything to reveal that Frederick is a vampire (just check out the title of the book), but he’s a vampire who has been asleep for 100 years (it’s too complicated to explain why here) and needs someone to help him adjust to contemporary times. Cassie agrees to do so and the fun begins.
Frederick (who is definitely not Jewish) is a great character: watching him try to understand contemporary life is grand fun. The plot also features complications with Frederick’s family and an arranged vampire engagement, but to reveal more would spoil the plot. “My Roommate is a Vampire” is definitely mind-candy, but it was a welcome break from the more serious works in this review.