Off the Shelf: Searching for romance: intellect vs. emotion

By Rabbi Rachel Esserman

Looking back at the past year, I’m surprised by the number of rom-coms I’ve read – at least for the paper. You won’t find many on my not-for-the-paper bookshelves. However, I find myself looking forward to the break these works provide since many of the novels I review are very serious, whether they are literary fiction, fantasy or mysteries. That’s not to say these rom-coms are just fluff. In fact, “Mr. Perfect on Paper” by Jean Meltzer (Mira) and “Funny You Should Ask” by Elissa Sussman (Dell) do have a serious side, but also managed to make me laugh and cheer for their heroines. 

Meltzer’s novels feature far more Jewish and far less sexual content than most rom-coms I’ve read in recent months. That is not a complaint on either account. In fact, it’s wonderful to read about a Jewish character who clearly cares about her religion. I didn’t note the lack of sexual content until after finishing the work because it fit the nature of the book. Both novels Meltzer has published focus on a main character with a medical condition that negatively affects her life. In her first novel, “The Matzah Ball,” Meltzer wrote about a woman who suffered from chronic fatigue syndrome. (To see the Reporter’s review of that book, click here.) In this new work, her heroine has been diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder (meaning that she suffers from panic attacks). The author also includes male characters who face emotional problems that they contend with before they can enter a relationship. 

However, her medical condition does not prevent Dara Rabinowitz working as the creator and CEO of a very successful Jewish dating site and being a third-generation matchmaker. Unfortunately, her dating site is no longer considered a cool platform and Dara is looking for ways to increase its membership. Her public life is very controlled and confined: she has assistants to help her with almost everything. But they can’t help her with her personal life: her mother passed away 10 years before and her beloved grandmother Miriam has been diagnosed with brain cancer. When Dara agrees to go on national TV with Miriam to promote her app, the unexpected happens: Miriam shares Dara’s list of the traits a perfect Jewish husband should have. Dara feels humiliated, but the interview segment becomes a viral success.

This is good news for her interviewer Chris Steadfast, who moved to New York City with his daughter after the tragic death of his wife. His daytime news program has been threatened with cancellation. But with Dara’s interview going viral, he sees an interesting possibility: the show could arrange dates with men who fit Dara’s criteria and film their dates. Unfortunately for Chris and Dara, they find themselves attracted to each other, even though Chris doesn’t check off one item on her list, especially the most important one: he’s not Jewish.

“Mr. Perfect on Paper” is filled with funny scenes that made me laugh out loud. (If you think you’ve had bad dates, you should see what happens to Dara.) It also looks closely at why Dara wants to marry someone Jewish and takes that desire very seriously. Also under discussion are whether intellectual or emotional connections are the best basis for a marriage. Fans of the genre will love this rom-com.

While Dara’s story takes place in one time period, “Funny You Should Ask” covers two different phases of Chani Horowitz’ life. The first takes place when she’s asked to write a profile of actor Gabe Parker, who was about to become the new James Bond. The second begins 10 years later, when Chani, now a divorced successful writer, is asked to interview Gabe again, this time after his divorce, a smashed career and time in rehab. Chani has her own struggles. Although she’s famous for her interviews and has produced a successful book of essays, she doesn’t feel like a real writer: her former classmates have published literary novels and consider her work fluff. While this may not sound amusing, Sussman has written a very funny book. It’s also perfect for anyone who has ever had a crush on a celebrity. 

The novel works because it moves back and forth in time and offers different points of view. The original interview Chani did with Gabe appears in short selections, which are spread throughout the book. Readers then learn what really occurred then and what is currently happening in Chani’s life after she reluctantly agrees to interview Gabe again. Interspersed are Chani’s personal blog, reviews of Gabe’s films and Chani’s book of essays, and gossip from newspapers and websites about Gabe’s personal life. This helps readers understand the characters because it shows the pressures that they face. 

The suspense is helped by the foreshadowing Sussman does, offering tantalizing glimpses of what might have happened, which made me eagerly turn the book’s pages. It was fun writing my reactions to particular parts of the novel in my notes, many of which I can’t share in a family friendly newspaper. You don’t have to have had a crush on a celebrity to enjoy “Funny You Should Ask,” but if you did, you’ll be glad to follow Chani’s experience, which include... well, I’m not going to spoil the surprises!