Not Quite a Bodice-Ripper, But …
Starstruck author Yael Levy puts religious Jewish women in a place they’re rarely found: romance novels
Lawler was right: Brooklyn Love did find an audience beyond Orthodox readers. “I hear from a lot of young women of different faiths,” Levy told me. “Religious Christians, but also first-generation Americans, people from different cultures trying to figure out how to date here.” As Lawler predicted (and as the book’s Amazon and Goodreads reviews indicate), nonreligious people enjoyed the book, too. When a given genre’s readers can suspend disbelief enough to identify with a steampunk-parasol-wielding 20-something Italian spinster criminal investigator in Victorian London who finds herself attracted to a werewolf, surely they can identify with a mitzvah-doing 20-something bookkeeping spinster in Borough Park who wants to marry a “learning boy” (aka scholar) but falls in love with a “working boy” (aka guy with a job-job).
Of course, you can’t please everyone. One Amazon commenter was appalled that the friends in Brooklyn Love have such differing levels of observance (one isn’t allowed to listen to any secular music, while another reads Vogue), and that characters talk openly about their love lives. (Hey, I couldn’t believe a character found a rent-controlled apartment in Manhattan. Suspend a little disbelief, girlfriend.) I couldn’t find any reviews, positive or negative, in Orthodox publications. Perhaps in that culture, even tsniyusdik romance novels remain under the bed.
Levy, unsurprisingly, has a progressive attitude about literature. “I let my teen daughters read romance novels and watch rom-coms,” she told me, “but we have many, many, many conversations at our Shabbos table about what is and isn’t a healthy relationship and what are and aren’t realistic expectations.” She’s worked as a volunteer matchmaker in her community (and for the site SawYouAtSinai.com) and worries that many members of her community do have too-rigid and too-dreamy fantasies about what marriage will be like. “I don’t think that’s the fault of romance novels, though,” she says. “I think the historical persecution of Jews has left us, as a people, through generations, afraid of intimacy in a meaningful way. It amazes me that people who are so thoughtful and intelligent in their daily lives can often give over their entire essence to fantasy when it comes to relationships. Is it the media’s fault? No, collectively, our emotional vacuums get filled with whatever our culture pushes because we don’t know how else to navigate it all.”
It’s not accidental that Levy’s books’ “happily ever afters” (HEAs, in romance-speak) are more complicated than usual for romance novels. “Personally, I find romance novels a fantastic escape and release from the inherent pressures of raising a family,” she said, “but my work has different endings than romances modeled after the ‘platonic’ true love ideal of a knight for his lady. Jewish history has been a different experience from that, and my writing reflects it. The knights and their ladies can keep yearning for each other … while I’ve got Shabbos to make and a piece of hot babka waiting for me when I’m done.”
I won’t argue that Brooklyn Love and Starstruck are great literature. But they’re sweet, quick reads, and the e-book version of Brooklyn Love costs $3.82. A few hours’ diversion for the cost of a latte? Not too shabby. So, shut up with your snobbery. Sure, many romance novels are crappy; most books published today are crappy. Yet somehow other once-maligned genres get far more respect. (Sci-fi and crime, for instance, have their own columns in the New York Times Book Review, for heaven’s sake.) That’s because romances are sneered at as A Lady Thing. But I’d stack Outlander, The Iron Duke, and The Sea Witch up against your Dan Browns and John Grishams any day. I just wish the covers weren’t so mortifying. (This, my friends, is why they invented the Kindle.)
Writer pals, there’s a market here. Not to fall into Georgette-Heyer-esque stereotypes, but why are we leaving money on the table? If Brooklyn Love is any indication, you don’t have to be Jewish to love Levy’s (romances, not rye bread). At a time when book sales are suffering, romance novels generated $1.368 billion in sales in 2011, an increase over the previous year; it’s the largest genre share of the U.S. consumer market (14.3 percent of books sold). And romance buyers have been early and enthusiastic e-book adopters: Online sales doubled to 44 percent in 2012 from 22 percent in 2011. So, nu? Ladies, what’s your story?
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