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Book Review: The Matzah Ball

Eighteen years ago, Rachel had a summer camp prank romance with Jacob. They were twelve. Ketchup was involved. But it ended badly. Now chronically ill, Rachel writes romance for a living. But not just any romance… oh no... the dutiful Rabbi’s daughter writes schmalpy and sensual Christmas-themed romances. In fact, she’s written 20 of them. She’s even got 4 movie deals out of them. Now her publisher wants more diverse works and so they give her an ultimatum… Write a Hannukah-themed Romance or they won’t renew her contract. Rachel doesn’t know what to do, until she hits upon an idea. An idea that puts her squarely in the path of her summer camp nemesis - Jacob.

This review is going to contain some spoilers. And there are some very frank discussions about difficult topics including bullying, chronic illness, ableism, and suicidal ideation. Also, as in many romantic comedies, there may be a lot of secondhand discomfort with the situations the characters find themselves in. Make sure you’re in a good place before reading this.

I’m really quite torn in how I feel about this novel. Like seriously torn. I loved parts of it and hated others, so I’m going to explain why I think this book is really good and I’m glad it exists, but also why I don’t love it fully.

On one hand, I absolutely loved the Jewish representation and the very excellent way that the author explained very Jewish concepts so that non-Jewish people wouldn’t feel left out. I liked that there were people who had varying levels of observance. While the author didn’t identify which sect of Judaism Rachel and her family practices, it felt like Conservative Judaism as opposed to Reform, Orthodox, or Reconstructionist. From my experience, there is definitely different levels of observance from people who will eat shrimp and definitely have a bacon pan to those who have wholly separate kitchens for cooking and at least 6 sets of dishes. It felt real. And I loved that.

On the other hand, I didn’t love the Hero. His actions in many instances really landed wrong with me. For instance he treats Rachel very poorly refusing to listen to her when she says “No, I can’t do something.” and constantly pushes her to share her secrets with him without being willing to share his own. He does something to her that quite literally had me crying because what he did brought back memories of my own bullying both as a child and later as an adult. Then, once his prank backfires, he does performs a sweeping gesture that removes a lot of her agency and doesn’t give her a way out. (I’m going to come back to this.) Even later still, he violates her privacy in her home reading a document that is confidential… and then doesn’t even apologize for that. I didn’t like him. Rachel deserved better.

I did like Rachel for the most part. In fact, my biggest complaint with her is something wholly personal–she doesn’t stand up for herself–but it’s part of her storyline so… I did like that Rachel is chronically ill and her feelings about it echo my own as a spoonie. Rachel lives with ME/CFS and the author nails what that is like – likely because she has lived it.

That said (and here’s your second spoiler alert) when the hero hires an executive assistant to oversee cleaning up Rachel’s apartment, cooking her food, and caring for her while she is recovering from a series of triggered bad days brought on by the hero’s bullying – I told you I’d get back to this – he does so without checking with her first. Worse, the executive assistant doesn’t take her no as an answer. And while in the story it is presented with kind intentions there’s a problem with this and how it’s handled in real life. So yes, Rachel is overwhelmed. Yes, she is having a bad day to the point that heating up soup isn’t possible. But she’s the one who needs to decide what she can live with. It’s like grabbing the handlebars of a disabled person’s wheelchair and pushing them… the intentions are pure but they are often misguided. Worse, it builds into the very damaging real world consequence that disabled voices are ignored and infantilized. The way that Jacob and the executive assistant treat Rachel is infantilizing. They are overriding her wishes. They aren’t talking to her. They are treating her like a child. I really, really, really had issues with this whole scene and what it stood for. And while in the end, Rachel was okay with the help… it’s bad consent. Really bad consent. And people learn from fiction and I feel like this is modeling bad behavior and rewarding it narratively.

I really adored how the publishing industry was portrayed. Especially the big push by publishers to have their authors out themselves as own voices and to write about their lived experience…. often when they aren’t ready.

I didn’t like how the event planning industry was portrayed. Some of the things that the author had volunteers doing would never be allowed in a union town like NYC. Look, I work in the convention industry. Teamsters or Hotel employees set up tables, chairs, etc… They also don’t tend to allow things to be hung on the walls. or have things dangle from the ceiling. While I’m letting this go and it didn’t affect my rating of the story, it was something I noted. There was a lack of research done.

What I did like was that at the end the author acknowledged that their experience isn’t a universal experience. No marginalized person is a monolith. And that was actually lovely to see.

So yeah, I was torn.

I liked this, but I didn’t love it. Parts of it really bugged me. It’s got great character voices and wonderful representation. This is a nice sweet romance with no sex and very minor swearing. But because I’m so torn I’m going to rate this:

Three Stars

If this is your jam, you can get it here.

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I received an ARC via NetGalley.

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