July 14, 2014

Review: Like No Other by Una LaMarche

Title: Like No Other
Author: Una LaMarche
Release Date: July 24th, 2014
Publisher: Razorbill
Page Count: 352
Source: ARC from Publisher
(I received this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest
review. No favors were exchanged, my opinions are my own.)

First Reaction: Picked up for religious reasons, stayed for everything else.
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Fate brought them together. Will life tear them apart?

Devorah is a consummate good girl who has never challenged the ways of her strict Hasidic upbringing.

Jaxon is a fun-loving, book-smart nerd who has never been comfortable around girls (unless you count his four younger sisters).

They've spent their entire lives in Brooklyn, on opposite sides of the same street. Their paths never crossed... until one day, they did.

When a hurricane strikes the Northeast, the pair becomes stranded in an elevator together, where fate leaves them no choice but to make an otherwise risky connection.

Though their relation is strictly forbidden, Devorah and Jax arrange secret meetings and risk everything to be together. But how far can they go? Just how much are they willing to give up?

In the timeless tradition of West Side Story and Crossing Delancey, this thoroughly modern take on romance will inspire laughter, tears, and the belief that love can happen when and where you least expect it.

[Summary Source: Goodreads]

BEFORE we get started...
I think I should clarify what I'm going to cover in this review with a bullet point list.
  • The Jewish Stuff: I went to Jewish Private School for 14 years, did a gap year at a midrasha (all-girl's school for Jewish studies) in Israel, and served on the Hillel board at my university for two years. Frum from birth, as Devorah so frankly puts it early on in this story. (Yes, that is a thing and yes, I laughed when I read it.) So, technicalities abound.
  • Everything Else: This book will also be reviewed as I review anything else. This also includes the application of Judaism to the story (i.e. more than just the technical bits). 

The Jewish Stuff
There are a lot of things in this book that are dead on. The laws surrounding yichud, yoledet, and tzniut are so spot on I was kvelling. Kosher was explained with ease. There are words and phrases and colloquialisms that are used so well I'd never know Una LaMarche wasn't also frum from birth. The structure of the Jewish community was so familiar it made me cringe because yes of course the Jewish community (no matter how religious) is like a never ending ride on "It's a Small World After All" - which is nice, sometimes, but not nice other times, as Devorah learns in this book.

So yeah, greatness. Except... there's this one law, shomer negiah (men and women cannot touch unless they're very closely related or married) that's not mentioned. It's actually violated, for example, when Devorah's brother-in-law hugs her, which is a no. And it struck me as odd because yichud and yoledet have some similarities with this law and I wasn't sure why it was skipped. (Although, I read an ARC and I'm kinda hoping it's different in the final version... I will do a whole write-up if it is. And, trust me, I really want it to be different in the final. I do.)

Everything Else: 
This book starts with Devorah's sister Rose going into labor. They're at the hospital and, of course, the power waits to go out until Devorah's in an elevator with this strange boy, Jaxon. Once stuck, the two talk and quickly find themselves falling for each other. Devorah falls maybe because she's never really been allowed to have anything to do with boys, let alone someone like Jaxon (read: definitely not Jewish). And Jaxon falls maybe because he's a romantic with hormones.  

The two leave the hospital but neither can stop thinking about the other - as the dual smooth, dual point of view in the book makes quite clear. Devorah can't stop thinking about this different boy who's come in and shaken up what she knows to be the norm and Jaxon likes how different and beautiful Devorah is. So they sneak around and find each other, but neither of them can keep up the charade for long because, hello, that is reality in parental form calling.

But here's the thing: Jaxon really has nothing beyond the usual at stake in this relationship. Sure, he gets wrapped up in everything, but his parents won't be angry he's seeing a Jewish girl. They're strict and (naturally) get mad at him when he blows of work and class, but they don't have a true bias against Devorah. It's Devorah who's got everything to lose. Her parents can't understand why she'd want to stray from the path she was raised on. They fear and reject the unknown that is Jaxon. And, while I didn't hate this unbalance, I feel like I wish Jaxon's situation had been a bit more precarious - if only so he could understand why all the risks he took to get close to Devorah only make their relationship even more impossible. (I did love all the parental involvement, though. I love present parents in YA.)

But, no matter how much I could have left Jaxon, I just want to taketaketake more of Devorah. Her struggles so hit home with me. Judaism, like every other religion I know, isn't an absolute. There might be a box you can check to denote your general denomination, but it's really more of a sliding scale. I do this, but I don't do that and so on and so forth. What Devorah doesn't realize is that, while her family and community check the box and ignore the scale, the scale is still there and she's allowed to contemplate it (Jaxon is just the extreme of this contemplation).

My only disappointment with Devorah is that, while she explores her options in this book - even beyond Jax - she lets other things go out of her desperation to be with Jax. Things she wouldn't have normally let go of if her parents weren't being difficult. I like, and even enjoy, the fact that she follows her heart and strays from one aspect of her Judaism (the bits with Jax), but you don't have to throw the baby out with the bathwater, y'know? (Like that time she breaks shabbat and, indirectly makes her sister do so as well.) But, I guess she's a teen and that's something a teen might do while figuring out what she really wants in the grand scheme of life, so, okay, I'll push my disappointment aside. 

Ultimately, this is a story about the struggle for freedom of choice (as every Romeo and Juliet story is). But the choice for each character is different. Of course, Jaxon and Devorah want to choose to be together. That's kind of where it stops for Jax. But Devorah... her struggle for freedom of choice goes deeper. While there are people who choose to live in this very religious, Chabad-Lubavitch world and are perfectly happy with using the laws to create a fulfilling lifestyle for themselves, Devorah isn't. And it's not just because she wants to talk with a boy on the street. She has bigger aspirations than the future she sees for herself in her older sister and, while she doesn't want to abandon or upset her family, she still wants that choice.

Yeah. Okay. I could probably write a dissertation about this book, so I'll stop now. But a quick story first: During my gap year, the girls in my year and I met with this woman who was totally secular but decided to become more religious (she's a ba'alat teshuva, as explained in this well-research novel). She ended up dating as Devorah's sister does and she was perfectly happy. None of the girls in my year could understand it. I didn't either. But I realize now that it's not my place to understand it. It's her place. It's Devorah's place. So, regardless of any of my other thoughts, I have to give Una LaMarche major props for reminding me that the world isn't made up of my values and moral. And even more props for reminding me what it means to be free.

This book is great. If you like Romeo and Juliet stories, read it. If you like books with religious facts that are more or less spot on, read it. If you like philosophical books that'll make you think really hard about many things, read it. Basically: just read it.

Did you actually read all of this? If so, *here's a cookie*. But, seriously, if you want to get into any of this further, leave a comment down below.