Off the Shelf: Four genres of novels by Rabbi Rachel Esserman

“People who purchased this book have also purchased...” Most bookstore websites offer lists of books similar to the book you just looked at or bought. Those suggestions usually don’t work for me. I prefer to rotate genres. For example, if I’ve just read a serious literary novel, the next book on my pile is often a mystery or a fantasy or anything but a serious literary novel. The one exception to that is when I read books for this column: most reviews are more interesting when I can compare and contrast two similar works. (A writer whose novel I reviewed recently wrote to say that it was “fun” to see her book “in conversation” with another. I had never thought in those terms, but I like it.) However, when I saw four novels from completely different genres on my pile, I decided to feature them in the same review. While I usually organize a multi-book review in the order I enjoyed the works, these novels appear in the order in which they were read. 

Fantasy: “The Light of the Midnight Stars”

Some fantasies takes place in alternate realities. Others blend fantasy and reality, using elements of both to better explore how we react to our world. “The Light of the Midnight Stars” by Rena Rossner (Redbook Books/Orbit) falls into the latter category: it shows the precariousness of life for Jews in medieval Europe, while at the same time borrowing fantasy elements from Jewish folk tales, and Romanian fairy tales and folklore. 

The father of the three narrators – Sarah, Hannah and Levanna – is the leader of the Solomonars, the descendants of King Solomon. The members of his group, who practice Judaism, live in a small town in Romania and are able to change shape into animals, cause plants to grow and control the wind. But a dark gloom begins to cover the earth and their once friendly neighbors see the Jews as the cause, something which forever changes the sisters’ lives.
The plot surprises were so interesting and unusual that I don’t want to spoil them by even hinting about them.

However, it doesn’t hurt to say each sister experiences love and heartache in unusual and wondrous ways. Each must come to terms with the powers they have as part of their Solomonaric heritage. They must also decide on their connection, or lack of it, to their Jewish inheritance. One thing the novel does make clear is that nowhere in Europe is safe for them, whether or not they actively practice their Judaism. Any protections they have can be taken away in a moment.

“The Light of the Midnight Stars” is a wondrous, if dark, fantasy. Rossner switches narration between the three sisters and an omnipotent narrator, which heightens the drama and suspense. The imagery is vivid and compelling, and the plot moves quickly. I couldn’t wait to see what happened next. This work joins my short list of superior Jewish fantasy novels.

Thriller: “The Others”

Is it just me or are the characters in thrillers always so creepy and unpleasant? That may be the nature of the genre, which, in this case, includes offensive behavior not limited to murder. There also may or may not be an unreliable narrator. That doesn’t mean that “The Others” by Sarah Blau (Mulholland Books) isn’t gripping and suspenseful. It definitely is, although I wouldn’t want to meet any of the characters in real life.

Forty-something Sheila narrates the novel, which takes place in Israel and opens with the death of her former friend, Dina. Sheila, Dina, Ronit and Naama were part of clique in college formed around the idea that some childless biblical women were glad not to have had children. The group, which began to refer to themselves as “The Others,” also declared they would remain childless. But something happens after Namma marries that divides the group, and Sheila no longer considers them her friends.

It doesn’t help that Dina borrowed one of Sheila’s ideas about the Bible, which made her far more successful in their field of study than Sheila. Sheila’s professional and personal lives are unsatisfying. So, when a young policeman shows up at her door to pepper her with questions about Dina’s death, Sheila is left to worry about whether she’s a suspect or the next in line to be murdered.

Blau provided enough suspects and slights of hand to keep me guessing the identity of the killer. The ending was satisfying, although the action in this twisted tale also left me feeling grimy and uneasy.

Romance: “The Intimacy Experiment” 

After reading about unpleasant people in “The Others,” it was a pleasure to turn to “The Intimacy Experiment” by Rosie Danan (Jove). I don’t read many romance novels and, when I do, I prefer for them to be funny. Well, “The Intimacy Experiment” was hysterical! I had the best time reading it, and not just because it made me laugh out loud. 
The premise is wonderful: Naomi Grant, a former porn star who has started a sex-positive web start-up, meets Ethan Grant at an educational seminar. Ethan is currently in his second career: after working as a physics teacher, he went to rabbinical school. Naomi is looking to do in-person teaching, but no one is willing to hire her even though she has an advanced degree in psychology and her website is successful. Ethan is looking to revitalize his synagogue and attract new, younger members. How can they solve both their problems? Easy: they’ll offer an educational seminar with Naomi as speaker sponsored by the synagogue in the hopes that those who attend might be tempted to attend religious services. What could possibly go wrong?

It doesn’t spoil things to say that Naomi and Ethan are immediately attracted to each other. They, of course, think the other person can’t possibly be interested. Once they overcome that hurdle, they keep sending mixed signals, each trying to protect the other. Readers learn why they chose their careers, which shows the difficulties they’ve had to overcome. The novel also has a serious side: the sex-positive lessons Naomi teaches in her lectures are also offered to readers. But those don’t get in the way of enjoyable characters, a great plot and the laughter – along with an ending that will warm readers’ hearts. Two warnings, though: Naomi frequently uses a swear word in the original sense of its meaning and the sex scenes are really hot and explicit. 

Science fiction: “How to Mars”

The most cerebral novel in this review is “How to Mars” by David Ebenbach (Tachyon). His work made me pause and think, although that meant I didn’t become as emotionally involved with his characters as I did with those in the three previous novels. However, that suits his topic: he writes about the first colonists on Mars, six people who were chosen through a virtual reality show, which continues to film them once they arrive on the planet. All are qualified in some field helpful either for them to survive or do research, something important since this is a one-way trip: The company can get people to Mars, but has no way to return them back to Earth. Oh, and there’s one big restriction: No sex allowed, even though they were all supposed to have various tubes tied before they left Earth. 

However, everything is upended when Josh, a Jewish psychologist, learns that Jenny, with whom he has been having sex, is pregnant. This is particularly poignant for both of them because Josh chose to go to Mars after his fiancé (with whom he planned to have a family) died in a car crash and Jenny is worried that her late sister’s mental illness will manifest in the baby. There are also all the unknowns of giving birth on Mars. Their problems are complicated by different people’s reactions to the pregnancy, particularly that of Stefan, who is becoming increasingly antisocial and who has already broken Roger’s fingers over a disagreement over whether the dust on Mars is orange or red. 

Adding to fun are the different narrative formats used in each section: Josh writes in the first person; Stefan’s narrative is in the third person; and Jenny uses scientific tables to discuss her pregnancy and thoughts about her sister. Other sections are presented as parts of a handbook to be read by those living on Mars. They emphasize in several ways the reasons behind the no sex policy. They also offer psychological and sociological insights into what might happen when forming a new society. There are also “the patterns,” which affect what’s happening, but I don’t want to spoil the surprise by writing more about them. (I wasn’t originally happy with that part of the plot, but it grew on me as the story continued.)

Since I like intellectual novels, I enjoyed “How to Mars.” In fact, after the emotional ups-and-downs of the three prior works, it was a pleasure to maintain a little distance. So, this novel was satisfying in a different way, which helps explain why it’s so much fun to vary the types of works I read.