Jewish holiday romances have largely been relegated to Christmas tales with some Jewish characters, Hanukkah love stories that wish they were Christmas love stories, or the rare Jewish holiday chronicle filled with lazy stereotypes. But not this delightful holiday romance by Jake Maia Arlow — no, this book is for the Jewish gaze (pun intended).
When Shani and May literally run into each other (Shani’s mom hits or, more accurately, bumps May with her car), it is definitely not love at first sight. Shani is in Washington, DC for a month over winter break for a dream internship in paleoichthyology (dead fish and fossils), and she is still reeling from her breakup with her first girlfriend. When she takes over a dog-walking gig and is reunited with May, she senses a prickliness that, despite an underlying attraction, makes getting to know May a little difficult. But as May opens up and lets Shani in, the two young women develop a flirty friendship that slowly evolves into something more.
Arlow writes characters you want to get to know — no, characters you want to be your friends. Although she plays on stereotypical Jewish behaviors (like Jewish moms always making sure their child has enough to eat), she avoids creating stereotypical characters or falling into tired tropes. Even the Chinese food on Christmas doesn’t feel like a stereotype; it’s simply the situation that we find ourselves in on that day.
The relationship between Shani and May deepens. It feels sweet and real, though there are plenty of foibles. “Relationships are funny,” Arlow writes. “They’re messy and scary and horrible sometimes, yes. But funny all the same.” She captures those early days of a relationship, when one is not sure where it’s going to go but loves spending time with the other person regardless. The relationship is also placed into the context of Shani’s larger life: her internship, her oft-neglected friendship with her best friend Taylor, and her emotional scars from a previous relationship.
This book isn’t just a love story between Shani and May; it’s a love letter to Jewish readers. It’s unabashedly for Jewish readers — the word goyim is thrown around in a few conversations between Shani and May; Jewish traditions and words aren’t explained; and the entire framework of the book is different, in that it decenters Christmas and is instead a winter holiday romance.
You can’t help but root for Shani and May. Arlow has created a cast of characters that makes this book a joy to read.
Jaime Herndon is a medical writer who also writes about parenting and pop culture in her spare time. Her writing can be seen on Kveller, Undark, Book Riot, and more. When she’s not working or homeschooling, she’s at work on an essay collection.