REVIEW: The Matzah Ball by Jean Meltzer
A charming debut ownvoices romcom about a chronically-ill “nice Jewish girl” with a secret career as a bestselling Christmas romance novelist who’s forced to write the first Hanukkah romance, sending her for inspiration to the Matzah Ball, a high-end Jewish music celebration run by her summer camp arch enemy.
Oy! to the world
Rachel Rubenstein-Goldblatt is a nice Jewish girl with a shameful secret: she loves Christmas. For a decade she’s hidden her career as a Christmas romance novelist from her family. Her talent has made her a bestseller even as her chronic illness has always kept the kind of love she writes about out of reach.
But when her diversity-conscious publisher insists she write a Hanukkah romance, her well of inspiration suddenly runs dry. Hanukkah’s not magical. It’s not merry. It’s not Christmas. Desperate not to lose her contract, Rachel’s determined to find her muse at the Matzah Ball, a Jewish music celebration on the last night of Hanukkah, even if it means working with her summer camp archenemy—Jacob Greenberg.
Though Rachel and Jacob haven’t seen each other since they were kids, their grudge still glows brighter than a menorah. But as they spend more time together, Rachel finds herself drawn to Hanukkah—and Jacob—in a way she never expected. Maybe this holiday of lights will be the spark she needed to set her heart ablaze.
So while I read the blurb, my eyebrows rose in a bit of disbelief but hey, it’s a book about Jewish characters reconnecting during Hanukkah and, wanting it to be cute and to like it, I requested it. Long story short I got about halfway through and decided to DNF because of some specific things.
What I loved was the Jewish rep. This is a world of Jewish characters, friends, family, and religion. Rachel’s parents are very observant as her father is a world famous Rabbi. Rachel grew up the Jewish equivalent of the Preacher’s child. As an adult, she isn’t always the most observant but she loves this world, knows it well, and respects her parents. I felt I got a truly intimate view of a family Shabbat. The book has Hebrew terms casually inserted in the narrative and (Thank you. Yes, I know how to use Google for what I don’t know.) doesn’t always explain them. The way this is done makes it clear that the author knows what she’s talking about (She’s Jewish), I appreciate not being coddled and I can imagine how refreshing this would be to read by someone who doesn’t need every last thing translated.
Rachel has a chronic illness and shows us her lived world. She also discusses how problematic it is for someone who outwardly appears to be close to “normal” to have to live with the public perception that she’s not really “that” disabled or those who fail to see that she’s disabled at all. Jacob’s mother also had a chronic and debilitating disease and his memories of acting up because of it and in conjunction with his father walking out on them because of it is told in all its ugliness. In the intervening years, he’s grown up and deeply regrets his actions then but he was twelve and was allowed to act as I’d bet a lot of twelve year olds might.
Sparks of humor light up the novel such as Rachel’s inner thoughts on Jewish mothers intent on matchmaking when a young, successful, and single Jewish male arrives for Shabbat. The pranks that she and Jacob pulled on each other while they were twelve year olds at a Jewish summer camp were fairly clever. I also enjoyed Rachel’s long term friendship with her bestie.
Now what didn’t work for me. Despite the fact that I liked Rachel’s friend, why did he have to be a cliched Black Gay Best Friend? Sigh. The character of Rachel’s mother is a bit better rounded, devoted to her family, and takes her responsibilities as a Rabbitzen seriously but also at times appeared to veer towards the stereotypes of Jewish Mother territory: matchmaking, manipulating, guilt inducing. Also sigh.
Rachel and Jacob experienced First Love while they were twelve year olds at summer camp before What Happened ripped Young Love’s Dream to shreds and left them embittered for the next eighteen years. Okay, maybe not totally embittered but neither is interested in the other despite a bit of online sleuthing over the years. Rachel has only to hear his name for the crushing humiliation of what he did to revisit her while Jacob has never quite got over the crushing humiliation of what she did to him. Yeah, I get it. Having your first crush crushed wasn’t fun but for gosh sakes they were twelve and it’s been eighteen years! Either talk about it or forget about it.
Their adult relationship wasn’t convincing me that they were (re)falling in love. They have a few weeks of puppy love years ago and now are eyeing the other’s grown up self and frankly it felt more like instalust rather than any deeper feelings. And Rachel begins to lie by omission to Jacob just as she does to her parents.
Rachel’s obsession with Christmas is a little weird. It’s presented in a way that (I think) makes it clear that she doesn’t love the holiday for the religious aspects but rather the bling. Also that for her it’s melded into her struggle with her chronic disease and how she’s used Christmas as a writing inspiration that allows her to have a career she can manage from home with her disease. Writing her Christmas themed romance novels pays for her two bedroom Manhattan apartment and lets her work from home but given how her mother once reacted to Rachel putting a paper cut out Christmas tree on her bedroom wall, the fact that Rachel has lied (by omission) to her family about what she does for so many years is unsettling to me.
Then there’s the repetition of hearing about all of the above ad nauseum. Again and again the Pre-teen Summer of Love gets rehashed along with (the same) details of Rachel’s illness and Jacob’s youthful troubles. Refresh my memory (no, actually you don’t have to) every couple of chapters but not Every. Single. Chapter. The pace of the story is, at times, glacially slow.
Once I had decided that this book and I just weren’t going to mesh, I did go and read some other reviews of it which mention things that I would have had a problem with. I won’t mention specifics here as I didn’t get that far but they have to do with agency and honesty. The author includes a note that her experience as a Jewish woman with chronic fatigue syndrome isn’t everyone’s experience. She tried to be truthful to herself and her lived experience but knows that people in both communities have different stories from hers. Edited to add – Well let me discuss another aspect of the book I didn’t get to before I stopped reading it that is causing a lot of angry reviews across the internet. At some point, the heroine “flirty banter” jokes with the hero that she’s secretly in the IDF – a trained Mossad assassin and has killed over 70 men with her flowered headband. Yeah she meant it as a joke only it’s not.
In the end, I wanted to love this book but just didn’t. However, I hope that Meltzer will keep writing as I think one day I will enjoy one of her stories. DNF