Title: The Intimacy Experiment
Author: Rosie Danan
Publication date: April 6, 2021
Length: 336 pages
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley
Naomi and Ethan will test the boundaries of love in this provocative romance from the author of the ground-breaking debut, The Roommate.
Naomi Grant has built her life around going against the grain. After the sex-positive start-up she cofounded becomes an international sensation, she wants to extend her educational platform to live lecturing. Unfortunately, despite her long list of qualifications, higher ed won’t hire her.
Ethan Cohen has recently received two honors: LA Mag named him one of the city’s hottest bachelors and he became rabbi of his own synagogue. Taking a gamble in an effort to attract more millennials to the faith, the executive board hired Ethan because of his nontraditional background. Unfortunately, his shul is low on both funds and congregants. The board gives him three months to turn things around or else they’ll close the doors of his synagogue for good.
Naomi and Ethan join forces to host a buzzy seminar series on Modern Intimacy, the perfect solution to their problems–until they discover a new one–their growing attraction to each other. They’ve built the syllabus for love’s latest experiment, but neither of them expected they’d be the ones putting it to the test.
In author Rosie Danan’s follow-up to The Roommate, the story focuses on Naomi Grant, who we meet as a supporting character in The Roommate. Here, Naomi takes center stage, and really, she’s a fabulous main character.
Naomi is a sex worker with an advanced degree — a former adult performer (aka porn star) who has shifted her career by becoming co-CEO of a wildly successful sex-positive online platform, Shameless. Naomi sees her calling as being a voice for sex-positivity and helping people experience love, intimacy, and sexual expression in ways that are fulfilling and empowering. However, her very public background means that she can’t get a teaching job at any of the local colleges, no matter where she applies.
Enter Ethan. After meeting at an education conference, Ethan sees Naomi as a potential partner for his project of bringing new members to his floundering synagogue. Ethan is a young rabbi (formerly a physics teacher) with energy, enthusiasm, and compassion. His synagogue, like so many, is largely populated by an older crowd, and without an infusion of members, it won’t be able to survive. Ethan hears Naomi speaking passionately about her goals in education, and approaches her with a proposition — to teach a course on modern intimacy, sponsored by his synagogue.
After some doubts, Naomi agrees. Naomi is a fearless, hard-edged woman who never backs down from a challenge, but she also remembers her early life as Hannah Sturm, a Jewish girl raised without much formal religion who abruptly left her past behind after a disastrous public shaming that left her with some deep-seated scars (and which directly led to her embracing the porn industry). Naomi can’t really believe that a respectable rabbi would want to be associated with her scandalous personal brand, but Ethan thinks it’s a perfect match.
Together, they build a curriculum for a seven-part series that covers everything from courtship and first dates, to satisfying sex, to how to break up. With each new lecture, the course draws more and more participants, but it’s not without controversy: The stodgy, traditionalist synagogue board members think associating their shul with someone like Naomi Grant is damaging to their reputation and goes against their core values, and give Ethan some increasingly dire warnings intended to push him to cut ties with Naomi. But Ethan, despite his warmth and patience, also has a backbone, and he’s not going to back down from what he believes is the right thing to do.
Needless to say, alongside their professional partnership, Ethan and Naomi have instant chemistry, and the more they work together, the more they realize that it’s not just physical. Yes, they’re wildly attracted to one another, but they also connect on a deeper level, and find that their feelings are growing in ways that neither expected.
There’s a lot to love about The Intimacy Experiment. First off, this book is way more Jewish than I would have expected! As someone who grew up around synagogues and JCCs, I was tickled pink every time there’s a mention of something I could relate to. It was really intriguing and surprising to discover how much the plot is driven by the very real challenge facing synagogues today — how to reach and engage unaffiliated Jewish young adults and bring them into organized religious institutions at a time when synagogues and religion may be viewed as ultra-conservative relics of the past.
Before starting the book, I felt a little uncomfortable with the idea of seeing a rabbi as a romantic lead, but I got over it! Ethan is smart, sweet, and compassionate, and his spiritual journey is described in very meaningful ways. And yes, there are sex scenes, but by the time the book gets there, I’d gotten to know Ethan as a person, not just as his title, and it didn’t bother me.
If you’re familiar at all with The Roommate, you’ll know that that book — while a great read — is also very explicit when it comes to sex. The Intimacy Experiment has sex scenes as well, but they don’t permeate the entire book they way they do in The Roommate. Instead, The Intimacy Experiment focuses on — as the title promises — intimacy, as we see the developing feelings between Naomi and Ethan and see how they apply Naomi’s lecture topics to their own relationship.
Beyond a really engaging plotline, The Intimacy Experiment has the clever and funny writing that the author excels at. While the book has heavier, more serious moments of introspection and processing earlier trauma, the overall tone is lightened up by the banter and frankness of its characters.
Also, and I can’t stress this enough, Naomi’s no-bullshit, no-shame approach is hilarious:
Naomi wondered how many women who got asked to be maid of honor used to fuck the groom, and on camera no less.
Ethan does manage to keep up, though.
“You don’t kiss like a rabbi,” Naomi said, her voice full of furious accusation, as she tugged him past the innocent bystander hunting for their lost keys.
Ethan focused on exhaling. “How many rabbis have you kissed?”
Naomi brought her fingers up to her swollen lips. “Evidently, not enough.”
While I really enjoyed this book, I did find myself annoyed by its use of the standard romance trope of miscommunication/bad assumptions — the point in the plot where a couple who are totally into one another end up fighting or breaking up because they misunderstand the other’s intent or feelings. Here, Naomi and Ethan each assume that the other deserves better, but don’t discuss it. For two intelligent, articulate, aware characters, it seems unrealistic and just there because a standard romance needs this type of plot element.
My other quibble with the book may stem from my own lack of knowledge, but in one scene, Ethan takes a selfie at an Oneg Shabbat at the synagogue following Friday night services, and in another, he has Shabbat dinner at his mother’s house, where a dish with butter is served alongside a dish with meat. Ethan is a Reform rabbi, and I grew up in Conservative Judaism, so I may be off-base, but it seems to me that a rabbi of any branch of Judaism would keep kosher and observe Shabbat. But, since the book seems to get so much right in its Jewish elements, I can’t help wondering if I’m just assuming things that aren’t universally true.
All in all, The Intimacy Experiment is a really enjoyable read, with an engaging romance and a surprisingly rich level of food for thought. Based on my experience with her two books so far, Rosie Danan is an author to keep an eye on!