Off the Shelf: Romance, contemporary style by Rabbi Rachel Esserman

One reason people like reading traditional romance novels is that they’re guaranteed to have a happy ending. That’s not necessarily true of literary romance novels because, unlike traditional romances, there’s no guarantee that all will end well. That thought occurred to me when reading two recent novels, ones that could only have been published in contemporary times. “Love at First Like” by Hannah Orenstein (Atria Paperback) and “Very Nice” by Marcy Dermansky (Alfred A. Knopf) show that the course of true love doesn’t always run smooth and, sometimes, its ending can be very messy. 
Orenstein’s novel is a more traditional romance in that readers will wonder which male character will be Eliza Roth’s true love. However, elements of the plot could only take place during contemporary times. Eliza and her sister, Sophie, co-own a jewelry shop in Manhattan. Eliza handles the financial part of the business and the social media aspects. When she learns that her ex-boyfriend is engaged, she’s so upset that she drinks too much. When under the influence, she takes a picture of her hand with the largest diamond ring in the shop on her ring finger and saves it as a draft. Well, she thinks she does, but the post accidentally made it to Instagram. The number of the store’s Instagram followers jumps and more people are ordering their jewelry online than ever before. Eliza decides this is good for business, even though Sophie is unhappy with the deception. Now all Eliza has to do is find someone to pose as her fiancé. 
With the help of a friend, Eliza meets several men, but decides to pursue Blake for a variety of reasons, including the fact that he’s handsome. As publicity mounts and questions arise about her engagement, Sophie boxes herself into a corner. She has to get Blake to agree to marry her on a particular timeline, but she doesn’t want to tell him the whole truth about why. Plus the store’s landlord is raising their rent and it might have to close if people discover the deception and stop buying their jewelry. To complicate matters, Sophie and her lawyer wife need money for fertility treatments their insurance will no longer cover. Blake seems like a terrific guy and is perfect on paper, but Eliza might be forced to admit that someone else is a better fit.
What makes “Love at First Like” feel different from other romances is that Eliza is not always likeable, something she admits when she finds herself doing things for business purposes that she otherwise would never have done. At one point, she acknowledges this, noting how the financial pressures of the business, and the disaster that would occur if she revealed her deception on Instagram, make her seem underhanded and unfeeling. Frequent readers of romance novels will guess which character Eliza ends up with, but even that has a contemporary twist; revealing that would spoil the fun, though. On the one hand, parts of the novel can seem a bit silly; on the other, it was a pleasure to read, especially when Eliza’s carefully made plans began to fall apart. 
While Orenstein’s novel is narrated by her one character, Dermansky offers a variety of first-person narrations, including three people caught in a love triangle. Rachel Klein, a 19-year-old college student, is in love with her writing teacher, Azhid Azzam, who has written an award-winning novel. Azhid asks Rachel to take care of his dog while he visits his dying grandmother in Pakistan. Rachel brings the dog home with her when she travels to Connecticut to spend the summer with her mother, Becca Klein. Becca, a recently separated school teacher, seems to be mourning the loss of her late dog more than the split from her husband, who left her for anther woman. When Azhid arrives in Connecticut to check on his dog, Becca doesn’t want the dog to leave and invites Azhid to stay. Life suddenly gets complicated when both women vie for Azhid’s attention.
What makes the story different is that Azhid is not the stereotypical writer whose ego is so big he pursues every woman in sight. Instead, he’s a bit of a nebbish who stumbles into relationships after women make the first move. That’s certainly true with Rachel, with whom he slept only once at the end of the semester. However, he believes he truly loves Becca, or at least loves the life that Becca helps him lead. Becca is surprised to find herself attracted to someone younger, but ultimately, she is the one to pursue Azhid. Of course, neither woman talks to the other about their feelings for Azhid, which creates problems since Rachel believes Azhid is still attracted to her. More complications occur when Jonathan Klein, Rachel’s father and Becca’s husband, becomes less than happy with his new girlfriend and worries about what’s actually happening in Connecticut. A fourth character, Khloe, with connections to Azhid and Jonathan, adds yet another dimension to these unusual relationships.
In some way, “Very Nice” is almost an anti-romance novel, with some characters falling in love and then discovering that love is far from perfect, or even what they want in life. The ending was a bit odd: the novel seemed to just stop, leaving several loose ends for readers to ponder. However, readers may enjoy watching these characters try to juggle their complex lives and unexpected challenges.