Not Quite a Bodice-Ripper, But …
Starstruck author Yael Levy puts religious Jewish women in a place they’re rarely found: romance novels
Literary portrayals of Orthodox passion and romance have been as rare as yarmulkes at a Chris Brown show, but Yael Levy aims to change that. Her new novel Starstruck, due out Feb. 25, is a caper comedy about Abby Miller, a Brooklyn Jewish housewife married to a busy young doctor who takes her for granted. Abby yearns for adventure and romance … until she stumbles on a crime scene and gets more than she bargained for. Her best pal, an Orthodox assistant D.A., works with a super-hot goyish cop to solve the case; before long, the reader has also encountered a hot soap opera actor, a thug with a birthmark shaped like a beaver, a medical mystery about an unnerving spike in post-surgical deaths at Abby’s husband’s hospital, and a severed hand wrapped in butcher paper labeled “corned beef.” Starstruck isn’t high art, but it’s groundbreaking: a romance novel from a secular, mainstream publisher that talks about mikvehs, the laws of Jewish divorce, and the centrality of the kosher butcher shop to the lives of Orthodox women.
Abby Miller is a little lost, but her creator seems anything but. Levy, 41, keeps a kosher home in Atlanta filled with almost enough children for a Little League team (she asked me not to say exactly how many—ptui, ptui, ptui): The oldest is 18, and the youngest is … well, due any day now. She also attends Emory Law School, though she’s taking this semester off. Her first romance novel, Brooklyn Love, a rueful comedy of manners that follows a group of shidduch-dating girlfriends all living with their parents and trying to balance love with familial and religious duty (think Jane Austen in Borough Park), just came out in September. The notoriously hard-to-please Kirkus Reviews called it “endearing,” “funny,” and “deeply affecting.” Her third, Touchdown, will be a paranormal romance about a bride murdered on her wedding day who becomes a dybbuk and possesses the body of a Southern goyish football hero.
I’m actually baffled that Orthodox romance is such a genre outlier. Of course there are Orthodox authors and secular novels with Orthodox characters (Joy Comes in the Morning, by Jonathan Rosen; The Outside World, by Tova Mirvis; Kaaterskill Falls, by Allegra Goodman; Faye Kellerman’s Rina Lazarus series), but I couldn’t find another Orthodox writer creating romance novels with Orthodox women at the center of the story.
Believe me, I tried. I had a fabulous afternoon falling down the rabbit hole of a very funny romance-fan site called Smart Bitches, Trashy Books, where one post was devoted to a search for Jewish protagonists and another to listing romances set during Hanukkah, complete with double entendres about flipping latkes and squirting jelly into donuts. But Orthodoxy? Nope. Following SBTB’s leads, I tried Fallen From Grace, an R-rated tale about a Reform Jewish 30-something lady novelist in San Francisco, the author of a mystery series about Jews in Moorish Spain, who falls in love with a 20-something, goyish, former street-kid/runaway-now-male-prostitute-who-only-sleeps-with-women (you wish, hon) and in the end (look away if you don’t want to know!) they get married by a rabbi. I winced at Plagued, the tale of a Jewish bisexual male vampire/Bubonic plague survivor who now lives in the contemporary rural Midwest and falls in love with the modern-day goyish freelance science writer; the historic details are wrong, and the sex isn’t hot enough to make up for it. One reader of Smart Bitches, Trashy Books pointed out that there are, unfortunately, a lot of Jewish Princess stereotypes in contemporary romance novels, and I’m told Georgette Heyer’s old-school Regency romances are toxic dumps of anti-Semitism. So, Yael Levy wins in a TKO.
I asked Levy how a nice Orthodox girl discovered romance novels. “I lived in Borough Park until Grade 4,” she said. “We were Orthodox—not Modern Orthodox, not Hasidic, just Orthodox. But I had an ultra-Orthodox neighbor who discovered her mom’s collection of Harlequin Romances under the bed, and I read them all. I was maybe 8.”
She didn’t start writing her own love stories for many years. She began her career as an illustrator, after attending the Fashion Institute of Technology—much like Rachel, the protagonist of Brooklyn Love. “But my husband and I moved to Israel for three years, and I still needed to express myself,” she said. “So, I sent an article to the weekend edition of the Jerusalem Post. I wound up doing features for them. When my editor asked for an article on how Orthodox Jews date, I tried to figure out the angle, and I realized it was a book.”
Writing while her small children slept, Levy completed Brooklyn Love in four years. It took several more years for her to get an agent, revise the book, and sell it. By then, she and her husband had moved back to the States, settling in Atlanta. Finding a home for the novel, however, was a tall order. “My agent first sent it to non-genre publishers, and editors would want to buy it but get knocked down in marketing,” Levy recalled. “They didn’t think anyone but Orthodox Jews would read it. Then my agent said, ‘I think this is a romance,’ and I said, ‘Let’s do it.’ ”
Levy wound up selling Brooklyn Love to Crimson Romance, a new imprint that launched last June and publishes five titles a week (first as e-books, then as print-on-demand) in the five main categories of romance novels: contemporary, historical, paranormal, romantic suspense, and “spicy.” Within the contemporary category, Levy’s books are classified as “Behind Closed Doors,” which is publisher-speak for “without explicit hot-and-heavy action”—think Austen, Bronte, Georgette Heyer. “There are a lot of people who don’t want Fifty Shades of Grey,” Levy explained. “They want love and yearning without the ‘grey.’ ”
Not-so-incidentally, religious Christian readers want that, too. There’s a hefty and growing audience for “inspirational romance” (it currently constitutes around 11 percent of the romance market, up 30 percent from a few years ago), despite lots of online handwringing about whether such books are immoral. Christian romance has its “modesty” rules (don’t use the word “arousal,” no sexy dancing, no kissing below the neck, etc.), which Levy’s books follow as well.
So, perhaps it’s not surprising that a romance publisher didn’t worry about Levy’s audience being limited. “I had maybe 12 seconds’ pause,” said Jennifer Lawler, Levy’s editor. “And it was because Brooklyn Love wasn’t a traditional romance—there’s usually one couple center stage, and in this [book] different characters take their turns on stage—rather than because of the Orthodox setting. But we’re a start-up and we can take risks; we can do slightly quirky romance. And it was so well-written—the biggest challenge in romance is creating conflict that will keep a reader turning pages. Yael did a great job showing the characters’ struggles with how love would fit into their belief system, how they could have a sense of self while also honoring their families. You don’t have to be an Orthodox Jew to worry about disappointing your parents and to feel torn between the guy everyone thinks you should be with and the guy who rocks your world.”
Besides, the zillions of romance readers who have no interest in religion still have plenty of experience reading about worlds they don’t intimately know themselves. How alien are a few Orthodox Jews in a genre full of vampires, shape-shifters, and smoldering 18th-century Scottish lairds?
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