The Romance Reader invites us to enter the Hasidic world as few have ever seen it - through the eyes of a young woman on the brink of adulthood. The daughter of a visionary rabbi who dreams of founding his own synagogue and center of learning, Rachel Benjamin lives in an insular environment, seemingly protected from the temptations and freedoms the modern world offers. As the eldest of seven siblings, she is expected to set a moral example within her family and the community: She must wear thick opaque tights with seams; she must never wear a bathing suit in public; she is not to read books in English. Rachel is a dreamer like her father; but her dreams are of the strong, confident men and the beautiful damsels in distress she reads about in romance novels she sneaks under her blankets at night. Secretly she begins to wear sheer stockings to school, concealed under high boots, and takes classes to become a lifeguard. She longs to live not in the dying, desolate community of a bungalow colony in upstate New York, where she can't help but be aware of the presence and allures of the secular world surrounding her, but in Brooklyn - in Williamsburgh or Borough Park - where the Hasidic world is sufficient unto itself and she could more easily be the good Hasidic daughter she is trying to be. Unlike her siblings and friends, Rachel craves the independence she will never have as a Hasidic woman in an arranged marriage. And yet, as her engagement draws inevitably nearer, the strong pulls of family and tradition, weigh against the frightening unknown beyond her - the secular world she knows only through her beloved romance novels.
Rating: 8.5 out of 10
Source: borrowed from the library
I originally started this book because it was the selection for the library book club meeting. Between the time the book was picked and the discussion, I found out that I did not pass the bar and dove back into studying. I did not finish the book in time for the meeting and decided to not attend any more of those sessions until the exam was finished. However, once I started the book, I was hooked. While I am not very familiar with the particulars of the Hasidic faith, I identified and related to so much of the book. In particular the way that, the main character, Rachel fantasized about living a life that is different from tradition. I also empathized with her questions about identity and gender roles. As she gets older, she begins to question practices and traditions; I felt especially sympathetic to her constant wishing that things were different.
Growing up in a fairly religious household and a pretty insular community, I often wished that I were able to live out the lives of characters I read about in books. In particular, I found myself wishing that I were one of the Sweet Valley High twins or at least in their social circle. Because of that experience (and probably because the book was so well written), I loved Rachel's observations about the differences between how men and women in her community interacted with each other compared with how others outside the community did.
When Rachel agreed to get married, I was surprised. However, I found that the wedding ceremony and her marriage gave Rachel the chance to confirm that she wanted something else. It reminded me a little of the scene in the movie Bend it Like Beckham when the main character's sister says to her, "Don't you want this?" in reference to all the wedding festivities. The main character says, "I want more." << I am paraphrasing, so I may have gotten it wrong.
Rachel's longing for a partnership with her husband that reflects more of the connection her in-laws have with each other and the frustration she feels when her husband attempts to create a relationship similar to that of her parents was one of my favorite parts of the book. During the course of her marriage, she starts to get more clarity about what she does not want and gather courage to figure out what she does want. She takes a huge step in that direction by divorcing her husband. I wish that the book had continued with more of what happens to her as she moves away from the cultural norms of the community in which she was raised. In spite of wanting more of an ending, I still very much enjoyed the book.