Off the Shelf: Romance, fantasy or a combination of the two: Part one

By Rabbi Rachel Esserman

After some serious literary reading, I decided it was time for something lighter. On my review copy pile were six books that I thought would be perfect for this: romance and fantasy novels. Well, some of the works were more serious than I expected, although others made up for that by being funnier. A few of the fantasy novels contained more than a dollop of romance (although that’s not really unusual) and some of the romances had more fantasy than expected. And other books went in a completely different direction than their descriptions led me to believe. But the surprises were what made reading and writing part one of this review fun.

“My Fine Fellow” 

When is a romance also an alternative history? When it’s “My Fine Fellow” by Jennieke Cohen (Harper Teen). The first chapter left me wondering why I’d never heard of Queen Charlotte of England’s reign in the 1830s, and her promotion of culinarians, mostly women of all social classes who attended school to become chefs. However, what left me delighted was something else: the names of two teenage culinarians – Helena Higgins and her friend Penelope Pickering – who meet Elijah Little, a Jewish teenager selling his pastries in the marketplace. Helena believes that she can turn the uncouth Elijah into a model gentleman culinarian whose low class origins will be undetectable. 

If those names don’t sound familiar, then you obviously never read or saw George Bernard Shaw’s play “Pygmalion” or the musical “My Fair Lady,” with book and lyrics by Alan Jay Lerner and music by Frederick Loewe. “My Fair Lady” becomes “My Fine Fellow,” and Henry Higgins turns into Helena, etc. To add to the fun, selections of lyrics from that musical can also be found in the chapter titles and text. Of course, the plot doesn’t completely follow that of the play or the musical, so there are enough surprises to intrigue readers. The novel also has its serious side: the way British society discriminated against Jews (as was true in the real world) is clearly shown, as is the discrimination against those of mixed racial heritage. This adds depth to what otherwise would just be a light-hearted plot.

But the most important thing is that “My Fine Fellow” was great fun to read, particularly the portrayals of the characters, which feature an oblivious Helena, who is unaware of how poorly she is treating Penelope and Elijah, who spend most of the novel denying their romantic attraction. Another romantic interest – Freddie Eynsford Hill – is introduced to create even more tension between the characters. There is also a great deal of interesting talk of a culinary nature. The novel ends with a recipe for chocolate coconut empanadas, but I wish I could have tasted all the food the characters made and ate. Someone really needs to work on making that experience possible. 

“Dead Collections”

For some reason I thought “Dead Collections” by Isaac Fellman (Penguin Books), which features Sol Katz, a transsexual vampire, was going to be a comedy. While the novel does contain humorous moments, its focus is far more serious. 

Sol works as an archivist, something that suits him because the archive is located below ground and he doesn’t have to worry about being exposed to light, which would kill him. Although his supervisor and the human resources person know he’s a vampire, most of his fellow employees do not, nor does anyone know that he’s been living at the archive, which could get him fired. Plus, another archivist, who is a lesbian, has taken an active dislike to him due to the fact he was transitioning from female to male before he became a vampire from a medical treatment that saved his life. 

Sol’s life changes when he meets Elsie, the widow of a television writer, who is donating her spouse’s work to the archive. The two form an instant attraction, but connecting is not easy. A great deal of the novel focuses on Sol and Elsie’s search to understand their true sexuality, which is more fluid than either of them expected. However, something is destroying the material Elsie has donated to the archive, and Sol must discover if he is the cause or cure for the problem.

“Dead Collections” moves very slowly because Fellman seems far more interested in exploring the nature of Sol and Elsie’s sexuality than in plot and action. My favorite sections used different narrative techniques – for example, chapters written as screenplays or featuring e-mail exchanges – to further what plot the novel contains. I’m not sure if Sol’s being a vampire is supposed to be a metaphor, but if so, it’s meaning isn’t clear; perhaps it’s just another way for Fellman to make readers question their assumptions about gender and sexuality.

“Playing the Palace”

I’m not sure why I originally skipped by Paul Rudnick’s “Playing the Palace” (Jove) when it first appeared last year because I’ve read all his other novels and most of his plays. I even have the book of movie reviews he published under the name Libby Gelman-Waxner. Part of me thought, “Eh, a romance, who cares.” Then I read it had a Jewish character and figured why not ask for a review copy. Reading it, though, reminded me of why I so like his work: “Playing the Palace” contains some wonderful snarky remarks that were I-have-to-stop-reading-because-I’m-laughing-so-hard funny.

The plot is simple: Carter Ogden, a gay, neurotic, nice Jewish boy (OK, man who is almost 30) meets the very publicly gay prince of England, Edgar, who is heir to the British throne and they fall in love. I know what you’re thinking: I said this was a romance, not a fantasy. Well, there are no ghosts, demons, vampires or witches. Nor does it take place in an alternative world. It simply posits that gay men can be completely accepted by their families. However, while Carter’s family loves Edgar, the palace is not happy with this upstart American who keeps making terrible gaffes and embarrassing the crown. Does true love stand a chance?

What makes “Playing the Palace” work is that Carter and Edgar are both flawed, insecure characters who are looking to find love and meaning in their lives. It also features a number of wonderful minor characters, including the queen of England; Carter’s sister, Abby; James, Edgar’s chief of staff and speaker of sarcastic asides; and a talking photograph of the late Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who’s no slouch at telling Carter what he should be doing. So you know just how much I loved this book, I’ve already told a close friend that I’m lending her my copy the minute this review appears because she absolutely has to read it.