...I get straight As, always dress properly, never break curfew, and am so unfailingly obedient that my best friend, Shoshana, likes to joke that I should change my initials from DFB—Devorah Frayda Blum—to FFB, short for “frum from birth,” which is basically the Yiddish equivalent of “hopeless goody two-shoes.” My parents, of course, are thrilled with the virtuous daughter they’ve raised, but as their expectations rise, mine lower. Because the life of a good girl, of a doting wife and mother, is a cloudless blue sky stretching across a flat horizon. And as it rages outside I can’t help but wonder what it would be like to be in the eye of the storm.
—Like No Other, Una LaMarche
Shortly after having that thought, Devorah gets stuck in an elevator with Jaxon Hunte—older brother, unrepentant geek, hopeless with girls, first-generation American, son of West Indian immigrants—and it isn’t long before their intense connection has her questioning everything she’s ever taken for granted. But Devorah has a whole lot to figure in in a short amount of time: After all, as a 16-year-old girl in a Hasidic family, it’s getting close to time for her marriage to be arranged.
Although Devorah and Jaxon take turns narrating, and although it’s been marketed primarily as a Romeo & Juliet story set in modern-day Crown Heights, Like No Other is very much Devorah’s story: It’s about her struggling to reconcile her upbringing with her desires, about finding a balance between pleasing her family and pleasing herself, about coming to terms with what she wants out of life. Her relationship with Jaxon is the catalyst for all of that, but ultimately, it’s not the center of the story, and despite a whole lot of angst, heartache and even some bloodshed, readers who go into this book expecting a straight-up romance may be disappointed.
Assumptions and expectations aside, it’s a mostly solid read—the focus is so much on Devorah that even Jaxon’s chapters are more about her than him; Jaxon’s actions and mind frame are more driven by plot necessities than by consistent character-building, in that he varies wildly from Overly Perfect and Understanding to Borderline Stalkery; while there’s an attempt near the end to redeem him, Devorah’s brother-in-law comes off as a moustache-twirler—with a very strong sense of place, and it deals sensitively and in depth with culture clash; portrays a crisis of faith that isn’t about faith itself, but about dogma; and shows how an insular existence can feel both stifling and safe. It should be mentioned, though: While I don’t have a deep-enough knowledge base to comment, the Kirkus reviewer (as well as some folks at Goodreads) dinged it for some cultural inaccuracies.
A few other YA books that deal with Hasidic culture:
A Brief Chapter in My Impossible Life, by Dana Reinhardt
A superliberal 16-year-old girl is contacted by her birth mother, a dying woman who is estranged from her Hasidic family. This was Reinhardt’s first book, and made me a fan for life.
Hush, by Eishes Chayil
Around the same time that 17-year-old Gittel is getting ready for the matchmaker to, well, make her a match, her long-kept secrets about the awful truth behind a childhood friend’s suicide begin to weigh on her. I’ve been avoiding this one for a while because I’m afraid it’s going to be truly upsetting, but Kirkus gave it a starred review, so I really ought to pick it up soon.
The World Outside, by Eva Wiseman
Like No Other alludes to the Crown Heights Riots of 1991, but doesn’t go into detail. As The World Outside is set in Crown Heights during 1991, I’m guessing that it does.
Strange Relations, by Sonia Levitin
Marne, who is Jewish, but not particularly observant, heads off to Hawaii to spend the summer with her aunt, who is Hasidic. Everything about the cover art on this one says FROTHY BEACH READ, but it received praise from all corners, so onto my TBR list it goes!
If she isn't writing Bookshelves of Doom or running the show at her local library, Leila Roy might be making stuff for her Etsy shop while rewatching Veronica Mars, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Babylon 5, Black Books or Twin Peaks. Well, that or she’s hanging out on Twitter. Or both.