A good holiday romance mimics the season it represents – a few parties, some sparkly decorations, walks in the snow, lots of time with relatives and friends and, hopefully a bit of magic. In her debut novel The Matzah Ball, Jean Meltzer uses her experience as a screenwriter to give the reader moments that are ready-made for a Netflix holiday film, with scenes filled with humour, comfort, and kindness, making this seasonal story shine.
Rachel Rubenstein-Goldblatt is a successful New York City romance author with myalgic encephalomyelitis/chronic fatigue syndrome (ME/CFS), and is grateful to have a career that allows her to manage her illness while working on something she secretly adores – Christmas! This would be the perfect set up for every holiday novel we’ve ever read except that Rachel’s father is a world-famous rabbi, and she has never told her parents (or anyone else besides her best friend Mickey) that she is behind the popular yuletide novels and films written by ‘Margot Cross’. The pressure on Rachel increases when her publisher gives her the bittersweet news that although her books have been beloved, they want to diversify their list and have her write a “proper Hanukkah romance.” Rachel panics when she receives this news because she isn’t sure if she can pivot successfully while also continuing to support herself financially with her writing. The idea of possibly losing the life she has built is enough to convince her to give it a try; she finds inspiration in a Matzah Ball she sees advertised in a newspaper, conveniently being promoted by her first love Jacob Greenberg. These coincidences must be forgiven when reading a holiday story – the enemies-to-lovers trope would never have become a trope if the former sweethearts stayed apart forever – so try suspending your disbelief for a few paragraphs.
This is not an everyday Matzah Ball that Jacob and his partner, Shmuel Applebaum, are cooking up for the people of New York. It’s the Matzah Ball Max! And this is where the fun begins. Jean Meltzer really knows how to add pizazz to a story. She has designed this entire novel with a director’s eye in mind. Jacob’s celebration on the eighth night of Hannukah is designed to be a one-of-a-kind party with Instagram-worthy experiences like a ten-foot high silver-and-acrylic menorah. When Jacob and Rachel meet again, they are at Rachel’s parents’ home for Shabbat, and that first meal is perfectly plotted with the most uncomfortable, polite dialogue between two people. Rachel eventually meets Jacob’s grandmother, Toby Greenberg, for a heart-to-heart, but the reader has already gotten to know Toby and has visited her colourful New York apartment filled with menorahs and decades of family history. Rachel’s best friend Mickey Goldman has known Jacob since sleepaway camp but they meet again as adults when Mickey warns Jacob not to cause Rachel any more heartache – with Jacob overtired from a long day of prepping for the ball and Mickey angry in a stylish peacoat. When Jacob wants to apologize to Rachel for something (there are a few things he needs to apologize for, it’s that kind of book) he sends her a silver and blue ball gown in a large box with matching wrapping. Can’t you just imagine it all on your screen?
This is a novel with moments of broad comedy, but it’s also about family and community which both Rachel and Jacob come to appreciate more during the time they spend together preparing for the final splashy Hanukkah celebration at the Four Seasons. Of the many hurdles they overcome are grudges held since sleepaway camp, Rachel’s secret career, and more than a little headstrong behaviour on the part of one (or two) people involved in this coupling. Finding their way through those difficulties and sorting through the misunderstandings that make these holiday novels so much fun put Rachel and Jacob into creative situations that the author must have thought would make a great movie.
Rachel and Jacob finally collaborate to ‘save’ the Matzah ball with party tasks like taste testing latke appetizers and martinis based on sufganiyot (stuffed donuts). These scenes are perfect for movie montage treatment with zippy background music, and I’m pretty sure that Jacob is described as wearing a snowflake sweater more than once at the hotel (in Rachel’s eyes he looks great in it). It seems like they are just seconds away from their happy ending and then.. well, I wouldn’t want to spoil the last chapters.
The Rachel and Jacob love story is compelling, but the secondary characters make this story stand out from many other holiday books. I’d happily read a novel about Mickey or Toby and, should Jean Meltzer feel like it, a story about the romance which first bloomed between Rachel’s parents would also be a treat.
I will say that I placed my hold on this book the second I saw the title – The Matzah Ball? Clever! I wasn’t disappointed and I don’t think anyone else could be. Their romance is sweet, I adored everyone in their lives, and the setting is perfection. The only thing missing from this novel is a recipe for Toby Greenberg’s rugelach (filled pastry).