Jaffe’s (The Genealogy of Understanding, 2014, etc.) coming-of-age novel tells the story of a Jewish adolescent attempting to square his homosexuality with the teachings of his religion.
On the cusp of his 16th birthday, Jake Stein notices a prohibition in the book of Leviticus that never caught his eye before: “ ‘Thou shalt not lie with mankind as with womankind; it is abomination.’…Jake read further still: anyone who committed such abomination ‘shall be cut off from among their people.’ ” As part of a Conservative Jewish family in 1970s South Jersey, the dictates of his religion are important to Jake—and even more important to his father, Sol. At the same time, Jake has been fantasizing about some of his male teachers and engaging in sexual exploration with his best friend, Dave. Jake joins the school play in hopes of finding a distraction from this identity crisis, but it only makes things worse: The play is The Diary of Anne Frank, a story laden with heavy guilt, and he quickly becomes obsessed with the lead actor, Steve. Jake concocts daydreams around his unrequited attraction but ends up feeling as lonely as ever. He attends Princeton University after high school, still committed to trying to be a yeled tov—a good Jewish boy—but the temptations at college prove even greater than those in high school. Throughout the novel, Jaffe writes in a polished prose style that successfully captures Jake’s anxiety from his perspective: “Jake glanced quickly down at his book, but couldn’t read what now appeared to be one big blur. His stomach clutched and his breathing nearly halted. Streams of perspiration jetted out under his arms.” Along the way, he does an admirable job of locating Jake’s conflict in the particulars of Judaism and Jewish culture while also presenting a story that will feel relatable to a wide audience. Jake’s road to self-acceptance is a long one, and it will perhaps frustrate some readers. But the details of his experience are so particular and humanizing that most people will stick right with him to the end.
An empathetic story of faith and desire.