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?
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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