Heat Factor: Kisses in the snow
Character Chemistry: Soulmates, in the “you fill in my missing pieces” sense of the word
Plot: Rachel needs to write a Hanukkah romance and is feeling uninspired—so she tries to get a ticket to the Matzah Ball, a huge party being planned by none other than her first love.
Overall: I have very mixed feelings
The first thing that you should know about The Matzah Ball is that it is very very Jewish. This is not a criticism, merely a statement of fact. The characters, especially Rachel, are very immersed in Jewish life and the local community, to the point of insularity. (Rachel says to Jacob at one point that when she was a child, she thought the whole world was Jewish, because her whole world was.) It was a fascinating reading experience for me: my closest connection to Judaism is through my husband, who describes himself as “Jew…ish”, and his upbringing was even less Jewish than Jacob’s (which the book paints as barely on the edges of the community).
What does this mean? It means we get very earnest conversations about the meaning of everything, using Jewish tradition as a metaphor. For example:
She quieted, a small sadness sitting there at the tip of her throat. “But what I always explained to Jacob is that these candles are a metaphor. They remind us that we always have a choice. We can be someone who snuffs out another person’s candle and, in the process, makes the world a darker place. Or we can be the type of person who spreads light. Better to be the shamash— one candle that lights all the others and brightens an otherwise dark world.”
Anyways, if you’re interested in a very earnest depiction of people falling in love in the context of not-Orthodox but still very halachic Judaism, this is the book for you.
The second thing you should know about The Matzah Ball is that Rachel, the heroine, has chronic fatigue syndrome. (Meltzer also has CFS.) Because Rachel’s disease is all-encompassing for her life, her illness is all-encompassing in the text. There are extensive discussions—one could call them data-dumps—about what CFS is and what it means for Rachel’s day-to-day life.
There is a fine line to walk here, between giving the reader enough information to understand and empathize with Rachel’s situation and giving so much information that the story gets bogged down, and I don’t think Meltzer quite succeeded here. Take, for example, this aside about Rachel’s symptoms:
One of the hallmarks of chronic fatigue syndrome was something called PEM, or post-exertional malaise.
PEM meant that within twenty-four to forty-eight hours of physical or mental exertion, the symptoms of her disease would get worse. For Rachel, this meant the fatigue would go from manageable to intolerable. Her body would explode in a barrage of weirdo flu-like symptoms . Sore throats. Lowgrade fevers. Night sweats. Aching joints and migraines.
Is the gist of the information relevant? Yes, the reader should know that overexertion means that Rachel will pay for it extra in the future. But there’s a lot of info here—and I don’t need to know that the technical term is PEM, just the effect that it has on her life.
The third thing you should know about The Matzah Ball is that Jacob, the hero, is mean. He just is. His actions around the midpoint of the book made me deeply uncomfortable, and I never recovered any positive feelings for him.
A condition for Rachel getting a ticket to the Matzah Ball is that she volunteer for it. Now, since Rachel has a chronic illness, this is going to be extremely difficult for her, but she is determined to power through. Jacob decides that Rachel needs to loosen up, so he makes her a hideous matzah ball costume and puts her in charge of guest relations, doing tasks that are unnecessary, wasteful, and difficult to perform in an outfit where you can’t move your arms. He sees it as a harmless prank (like when they were kids and he pushed her in the lake and she put toothpaste in his sneakers) but: 1) I don’t like pranks in romances; 2) those pranks wouldn’t have been funny to 12-year-old me either; and 3) pulling a mean-spirited juvenile prank as a grown-ass man is just not a good look. This whole scenario, and the way both Rachel and Jacob handled it (and processed it after it became clear that it wasn’t funny for Rachel at all), really made me question these two as a couple. On the other hand, tween Jacob and Rachel both thought that toothpaste in the sneakers was friggin’ hilarious so maybe those who like romance pranks will find Jacob’s actions less distasteful.
The fourth and final thing you should know about The Matzah Ball is that this is a Hanukkah romance about a romance author coming to terms with her identity in order to write a Hanukkah romance. Fun and metatextual, but the publishing schedule seemed completely wack. I do work in publishing, but not for a big fiction outfit, so maybe I’m just wrong, but going from proposal and three-chapter sample to contract to wanting to get the whole book into production during the eight nights of Hanukkah seemed way too fast. I guess the timeline was for plot purposes, because we need to make Rachel’s life as stressful as possible, so just…don’t think about it too hard.
I wanted to love this book, because the premise is fun (Second chance romance! Romance novels about romance novelists! Discovering the magic of Hanukkah!). I did love individual pieces: some of the humor is spot on, and I found Rachel’s obsessive adoration of Christmas pretty charming, and her angst about living multiple secret lives felt very earned. But as a whole, it didn’t end up really working for me.
I voluntarily read and reviewed a complimentary copy of this book. All thoughts and opinions are my own. We disclose this in accordance with 16 CFR §255.
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