Take A Peek Book Review: An Unorthodox Match by Naomi Ragen

“Take a Peek” book reviews are short and (possibly) sweet, keeping the commentary brief and providing a little peek at what the book’s about and what I thought.

Synopsis:

(via Goodreads)

California girl Lola has her life all set up: business degree, handsome fiancé, fast track career, when suddenly, without warning, everything tragically implodes. After years fruitlessly searching for love, marriage, and children, she decides to take the radical step of seeking spirituality and meaning far outside the parameters of modern life in the insular, ultraorthodox enclave of Boro Park, Brooklyn. There, fate brings her to the dysfunctional home of newly-widowed Jacob, a devout Torah scholar, whose life is also in turmoil, and whose small children are aching for the kindness of a womanly touch.

While her mother direly predicts she is ruining her life, enslaving herself to a community that is a misogynistic religious cult, Lola’s heart tells her something far more complicated. But it is the shocking and unexpected messages of her new community itself which will finally force her into a deeper understanding of the real choices she now faces and which will ultimately decide her fate.

An Unorthodox March is a powerful and moving novel of faith, love, and acceptance, from Naomi Ragen, the international bestselling author of The Devil in Jerusalem.

My Thoughts:

An Unorthodox Match is set in the ultra-orthodox community of Boro Park, Brooklyn, and is told through the points of view of several characters. Leah (Lola) is Jewish by birth, but was raised by a mother who wants nothing to do with the religion of her own upbringing. Leah only discovers faith and deeper meaning as a college student, and eventually pursues religious studies in her path back to observant, orthodox Judaism. Yaakov, a widower with five children mourning for his late wife, is a prize sought after by a slew of matchmakers, all looking to make a marriage involving his prestigious family. Yaakov’s mother-in-law Fruma Esther wants what’s best for Yaakov and his children, but not at the risk of their family’s reputation. And getting involved with someone newly returned to religion is a sure way to get gossip flowing, possibly endangering the future standing of the next generation.

This book is a deep dive into the community and its social constructs, and does a good job of explaining why a modern, educated woman might turn to a world that outsiders view as repressive and misogynistic. Leah is an interesting character, and the author does a good job at letting us see why Leah might find a fresh meaning and purpose through religion, faith, and tradition.

I’d tried everything the secular world had to offer and still felt empty. I wanted something else, something that would give meaning to my life. In your world, I found so many of the things I’d longed for all my life: safety, order, rules, limitations, real community, deep values. But I have to be absolutely honest with you… I’ve also discovered some things I wasn’t prepared for.

The family dynamics are well-drawn and touching, and I felt quite sorry for Yakov, his late wife (whose postnatal depression is only revealed late in the book, although there are certainly plenty of hints), and the children whose lives fall apart, until Leah steps in to provide love and order in their home once more.

Of course, as a 21st century feminist, I have a huge problem with religious rules that force women into “modest” clothing, declare them unclean when they have their periods, and require the rabbi’s okay for a woman to stop having babies when she’s clearly suffering and in severe distress. Through Leah’s perspective, the dress requirements are freeing, keeping her body private and preventing men from seeing her as a sexual object — but that only goes so far. Leah (or the author) seems to be a bit fixated on weight, and we keep hearing about how Leah has gained weight since giving up running (which she can’t do as a religious woman, since the clothing and/or activity would be immodest). The issues around body image and looks got in my way quite a bit, as did some of the characters’ attitudes around race and difference.

That’s not to say that An Unorthodox Match isn’t a good read — it is. I was caught up in the story and invested in the characters… but I definitely was challenged by needing to put my own opinions aside in order to accept Leah’s values and hopes. [Side note: For contrast, check out the memoir Unorthodox, which tells the story of a woman’s struggle to leave the Orthodox Jewish community she grew up in.]

A word on the cover: It’s a striking cover image for sure, but totally misleading. At no point in the story does Leah wear a skimpy little red dress, nor do she and Yaakov ever embrace or touch each other. And she does not have a back tattoo. (Okay, she has a small tattoo on her wrist, which is quite the scandal until it miraculously (?) goes away after she spills scalding water on her hands.)

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The details:

Title: An Unorthodox Match
Author: Naomi Ragen
Publisher: St. Martin’s Press
Publication date: September 24, 2019
Length: 336 pages
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley

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