How to Exca­vate a Heart

  • Review
By – November 22, 2022

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.

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