Book Review: The Matzah Ball

The Matzah Ball
Jean Meltzer, 2021

To start with, the premise of this book has a lot of holes in it. Rachel grew up in a close-knit Jewish community, but she secretly loves all the trappings of Christmas, and is, in fact, secretly a highly successful Christmas romance author. Her childhood frenemy-turned-love-turned-enemy Jacob is now a wealthy entrepreneur who throws expensive events for a living, and he's going to be back in town to manage the biggest Hannukah event ever. Rachel's publishers want her to be more "authentic" and ask her to write a Hannukah romance. She despairs because "there's nothing magic about Hannukah" but decides the only way to get the inspiration she needs is to get to that sold-out party. Cue misunderstandings, arguments, romantic tension, etc.

Just two of the questions this raises: 1) some Jewish folks care an awful lot about not giving in to the red-and-green juggernaut called American culture in December, and some don't. Either way, her reasons for hiding her career don't always seem plausible. 2) If you can't make romantic magic with a holiday that (on the surface, which is the only part of Christmas that's in Christmas romcoms) is mostly food, family, singing, and very pretty mood lighting, you might not be a very good author. 

But I was willing to put all my questions with the premise aside and lean into the Netflix-movie-pitch of it all. I was enjoying the characters. Rachel has chronic fatigue syndrome, and the portrayal of that was nuanced and sympathetic. 

I was even mostly okay with the increasingly ridiculous convolutions that the plot and characters took to prevent the two leads from just freaking talking to each other and easily clearing up a decades' old misunderstanding that both held a grudge over. Although it was getting cliche and old fast. 

Then the plot just took a few steps too far. Jacob finds out about her career (and a pitch for a novel starring a villain inspired by him), she tries to bluff through it, he blows up at her for not being honest, and she decides they blew their chance. Later she gets an inspirational speech about fighting for what you want from Jacob's grandmother and runs to the event. So far, silly but rom-com normal. 

Then she breaks into the fancy hotel, evading guards in a ball gown like some sort of parody of a post-modern Disney princess. I know I made a joke about a movie pitch earlier, but is that literally what's going on here? Is this whole sequence to give the third act some physical comedy/action?

Because they never get any real emotional catharsis for any of their issues. Rachel reveals her author pseudonym, which blows up her career for some reason, but don't worry, she has a rich boyfriend now, and she'll be inspired to write more books by the epilogue. Her parents knew and didn't care. Jacob never asks her to pull the book she started inspired by their miscommunications, but she does anyway. 

He also doesn't ask her, at least in words on the page, to give up her love of Christmas. But she does. She abandons her entire professional life and the thing that gave her joy because...? Because she doesn't need to watch romance movies now that she has a hot rich fiancĂ©, right ladies? Because her whole adult life was just an aberration, and there's no way to observe Jewish customs and still get a kick out of a bit of Christmas stuff, I guess? 

I think I was disappointed in this book for two major reasons, two expectations that the beginning of the book raised and the end of the book failed to deliver on:

1) That Rachel would reconcile her love of Christmas with her family and her heritage - doesn't really happen. She just trades an obsession with Santa figurines for a collection of menorahs.

2) That she would discover/invent/illustrate some romantic Hannukah magic. This is really the big one. We get a few descriptions of the beautiful party, but only from Jacob's perspective. The whole setup feels like the big emotional payoff should be Rachel realizing the magic in Hannukah (and life, or whatever), and... it just isn't really there. Or maybe I missed it. The ending was really weird.

So, in summary: Wanted to love it, liked the first two-thirds, but when it fell flat, it really fell flat.