Title: The Matzah Ball
Author: Jean Meltzer
Publication: Mira, hardcover, 2021
Genre: Holiday fiction
Setting: Present-day New YorkDescription: Rachel Rubenstein-Goldblatt has always been aware that people expect perfection from a prominent rabbi’s daughter but her life fell apart in college when she was diagnosed with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and she has felt imperfect since. Hiding what she feels is her weakness, she has made a successful career for herself as a romance writer of Christmas stories which she keeps from her parents. Her publisher demands a Hanukkah story just as Rachel’s nemesis Jacob Greenberg reappears, absent since he broke Rachel’s heart as a preteen. Coping with writer’s block, Rachel believes the only thing that can jumpstart her creativity is a ticket to the Matzah Ball Jacob has come from Paris to organize in New York. But all this proximity to handsome Jacob is very disturbing, especially as Rachel feels her illness will prevent her from finding love and happiness.
My Impression: Although I used to enjoy the Regency Christmas anthologies from Signet, it is unusual for me to pick up holiday-themed romances or mysteries, but this year I checked a few out of the library and was mostly disappointed as they were sappy, improbable, or just had a few mentions of Christmas thrown in to please an editor so felt disjointed. But I was intrigued when I read about this one because I had certainly never encountered a Hanukkah romance! I liked that the heroine had a real problem, a debilitating disease that made her fearful of being considered a malingerer or attention seeker because her illness cannot be seen. It also prevents her from maintaining a traditional job so she has worked hard to develop her writing career because it is flexible. I also appreciated that she had loving parents, who are well-drawn characters, and a best friend who is more than a gay cliché. The New York City and Long Island setting worked well and Jake turned out to be an appealing character who had experienced his own challenges.
However, I do get exasperated by plots based on silly misunderstandings. Rachel and Jacob had a terrible falling out when they were about 12 but he was, as it turned out, innocent and didn’t know why she was angry. He wrote many letters to ask why she was upset and called repeatedly. Given that Rachel’s mother befriended Jacob at that time, it is hard to believe Rachel and her mother between them would not have figured out the truth (wouldn't your mother have been curious about a distraught boy calling your house repeatedly?). Of course, I realize the author needed something to create conflict between them. My friend Grace who is Jewish did not like this book and warned me not to read it, but I who learned much of what I know about Judaism from All-of-a-Kind-Family and Gladys Malvern found it refreshing although repetitive at times. The author bio says that Meltzer had to withdraw from rabbinical school due to her own chronic illness, which is doubtless why her descriptions of Rachel’s illness were vivid and convincing.