REVIEW: The Intimacy Experiment by Rosie Danan
Naomi Grant has built her life around going against the grain. After the sex-positive start-up she cofounded becomes an international sensation, she wants to extend her educational platform to live lecturing. Unfortunately, despite her long list of qualifications, higher ed won’t hire her.
Ethan Cohen has recently received two honors: LA Mag nominated him as one of the city’s hottest bachelors and he became rabbi of his own synagogue. Low on both funds and congregants, the executive board of Ethan’s new shul hired him with the hopes that his nontraditional background will attract more millennials to the faith. They’ve given him three months to turn things around or else they’ll close the doors of his synagogue for good.
Naomi and Ethan join forces to host a buzzy seminar series on Modern Intimacy, the perfect solution to their problems–until they discover a new one–their growing attraction to each other. They’ve built the syllabus for love’s latest experiment, but neither of them expected they’d be the ones putting it to the test.
Trigger Warning – Naomi and Ethan mention experiencing anti-Semitism in their lives and it’s mentioned that the Synagogue and the JCC which hosts the lecture series have 24 hour security teams
Dear Ms. Danan,
When I read the blurb of this book, I just had to get it. The plot is interesting enough but add that the hero is a rabbi, the heroine is also Jewish, and it wasn’t centered around any particular holiday, and yeah, had to read it. It’s got a lot going on and I loved the sex positive message, the many moments of humor, a strong yet vulnerable heroine, and darling hero. I had a few issues with bits of it but overall this is a book I won’t forget.
When Ethan Cohen invites Naomi Grant to give a series of lectures about modern intimacy which will hopefully help people floundering on the dating scene as well as tie in with Jewish views of love, he is totally serious.
“Basically,” Ethan tried to explain, “if you’re not coming to me, I have to come to you. And since enough of you seem to care about dating, and intimacy is a core value in our faith, here we are. Gathered to learn. To connect. To hopefully, if Naomi does her job”—he gave her a cheeky nod—“enrich our lives. So yeah. I’m playing the long game, and this seminar series, Modern Intimacy, is my starting pitch. If you like what you hear tonight, there’s an open invitation to attend Shabbat services with us on Friday. We’ve got excellent cookies in the social hall afterward.”
He thinks this will be a great way to also try and increase the membership of his synagogue which is heavy on the senior citizen side and losing members fast. At first Naomi thinks he’s nuts, hot but nuts, and refuses but after discussing it with her business partners, she decides “why not.” She’s been looking for an opportunity to use her psych degree and do some in person counseling and lecturing to get the message across about feeling positive about sexuality, relationship dynamics, and self worth.
As she progresses through her seven weekly lectures, the audience size balloons, the word gets out that Rabbi Cohen is ready to get married thus setting off every available Jewish woman in LA and or their mothers to contact him, his elderly board members are increasingly scandalized, and Naomi and Ethan discover that they might have found what everyone is seeking – a love worth nurturing and fighting for. But will they give up in the face of pressure?
Of course both Ethan and Naomi have past issues that have shaped them and made them who they are. Ethan used to be a physics teacher before the death of his father made him reevaluate his life and he found first comfort and then renewed faith in Judaism. Naomi fell prey to a high school asshole who revenge porned her and stripped away the goals she used to have. No, she didn’t go into sex work because she felt victimized (though she did feel victimized by the asshole) but as a way of reclaiming her sexuality. Now she’s built a company from the ground up helping and encouraging people to shamelessly own their pleasure and take joy from it.
That moment is pretty much the catalyst for my whole career. I wanted to prove that being naked, being sexual, didn’t make you less valuable, less worthy of respect. In my quest to redeem Hannah Sturm—that’s my given name—I became Naomi Grant. Sex work let me save myself. Let me regain my power.”
Their working together might sound like the set up for a bad joke – a porn star and a Rabbi walk into a lecture hall – but after a slow first week, things begin to pick up as Naomi’s style and lecture content moves people beyond her past job and truly does begin to help people discover ways to improve their relationships. While Naomi doesn’t regret anything she’s done professionally she’s also not naive about how others think about and will act towards her. Ethan discovers this in a sad but also hilarious scene in which he tries to defend Naomi’s honor against a drunk – first by reasoning and then by fighting. Let’s just say he winds up needing an ice bag and a few shots of tequila by the end of the evening. I liked that downside of Naomi’s sex worker fame is shown but also felt that what is shown of her lectures seems like standard stuff that could be found on a hundred blogs or youtube videos.
Despite the sparks that crackle around them, both Ethan and Naomi have things about them that are relationship killers. Ethan’s status as a Rabbi either draws women because they think he has “Husband Material” stamped on him or it drives them away because of the commitment that it demands of him and would of his wife. Meanwhile Naomi knows – and doesn’t mind – that half of LA has seen her tits as they watched her in films or her new business but she knows most parents would be horrified if a son brought her home to dinner to meet the family. Naomi fitting into Ethan’s life and his synagogue is something I felt needed more wrap up on page than it got and was left as a big unaddressed elephant in the shul.
Naomi faced rejection due to what the asshole did and also because of her bisexuality. She is Jewish though she hasn’t practiced in years but she’s aware that some might not view her that way since her mother is a Quaker which always made her feel an “outsider of her own marginalization.” So while she’s interested in reconnecting with the faith, she’s not exactly eager to attend Ethan’s shul and risk having another door slammed in her face. She’s learned to always keep her guard up in a world that alternately shuns her or treats her as a joke. Of course she’s developed a protective shell and can be prickly as hell. This is a fairly standard “romance character with a vulnerable inside hidden by a tough exterior” stuff. Ethan on the other hand is a sweet beta guy – except when his synagogue softball team is playing.
The romance is more slow and steady and I felt that neither character rushed their feelings or emotional connection. For Naomi, baring her body has always been easier than baring her soul which rears its head the first time she and Ethan attempt to make love. This is also a bit standard – that Naomi has no issues having sex but does when emotion enters the situation. Ditto that she keeps people and love at a distance due to the early betrayal in her life. I was disappointed that the final conflict becomes a chance to trot out another trope when someone goes all martyr. Then when Naomi revisits the place where she was first shamed, a chance to talk to the current students about her experience and help anyone suffering from something similar was totally missed.
The writing is good and pulled me in. I haven’t read the companion book, “The Roommate”, but didn’t feel lost with these characters. Many of the tropes used are common but are also well done. Plus I loved that Naomi uses a cat in her analogy to explain her changing feelings about Ethan. The sex positive aspects are a breath of fresh air and yay for Ethan thinking and explaining things in terms of his religion which is obviously much of his core identity. But the book did slow down a bit as Ethan and Naomi worked out their issues and a few things I wanted to see explored more, and which are central to the romantic conflict of Ethan and Naomi’s future, were lightly passed over. B-