Shoshana Greenberg is an outgoing yet bookish teen working in Once Upon, her local bookstore in a small town outside of Atlanta, and her life is not without problems. Her aging car, which she has affectionately named Barbra Streisand, is barely running and she is short on the cash needed to fix it. Her two moms are loving and supportive, but their marriage is on the verge of a breakup. Things brighten — but also become more complicated — when dark and handsome Jake Kaplan joins the staff of Once Upon. Events develop to the point where Shoshana remarks, “If my life were a movie, this is the point where I would make a grand romantic gesture…But my life isn’t a movie.” Laura Silverman’s new novel features Jewish protagonists navigating the turmoil of adolescence in the style of a bright romantic comedy.
The book’s premise is relatively reassuring for a contemporary young adult novel. While Silverman does not minimize Shoshana’s problems, she does emphasize her character’s strengths and ability to make sense of tough challenges. Admittedly, Shoshana has many advantages: a caring family, empathetic friends, and an employer who is a model of fairness. Yet her mothers’ fracturing relationship threatens the stability of Shoshana’s life, and missteps with her peers have upsetting — if temporary — consequences. Shoshana’s emotional responses to these events are intense, but she also shows a measure of humor and irony about them, making her character appeal to young adult readers, especially those for whom the idea of working in a bookstore is a dream come true. Silverman mixes references to actual works of literature such as Harry Potter, with invented popular books whose titles are witty references to contemporary best sellers.
The author’s decision to center her novel on young American Jews demands choices; what kind of Jews will they be? Shoshana’s community is diverse; in fact, she makes a point of identifying many characters’ racial or ethnic backgrounds, and makes it clear that there are few Jewish residents. At times, her references to Jewish culture are inconsistent. While most American Jews eat non-kosher food, those who do would be less likely to use the term “hashem” for “God”; nor is it likely that the believably Jewish customers at the local Chinese restaurant on Christmas day would wear kippahs.
At the same time, the romance between Shoshana and Jake is refreshing. The essence of their bond is convincing, and it is at least partly connected to their Jewishness. Jake’s parents are estranged, and his family also faces financial strain. His obsession with cooking matches Shoshana’s love of reading. They both feel like outsiders in several ways. But they also celebrate Hanukkah, have mothers who sometimes use Yiddish, and are definitely aware of being, in Shoshana’s words, “Members of the tribe.”
Shoshana summarizes both her Jewish identity and her attraction to Jake with characteristic comedy: “I fidget under his gaze and pray for him to break the silence even though I’m not really a Jew who prays so much as a Jew who loves a good kugel and a lightly toasted sesame-seed bagel with white fish.” They are two Jewish kids drawn to one another and, in this charming book for young adults, that is enough.
Emily Schneider writes about literature, feminism, and culture for Tablet, The Forward, The Horn Book, and other publications, and writes about children’s books on her blog. She has a Ph.D. in Romance Languages and Literatures.