CM . . .
. Volume XX Number 41. . . .June 20, 2014
Playing with Matches.
Toronto, ON: ECW Press, 2014.
253 pp., trade pbk., $12.95.
Grades 8-12 / Ages 13-17.
Review by Kris Rothstein.
Reviewed from Advance Reading Copy.
Bubby Bayla sat knitting in the recliner in the family room. I plunked myself down on the leather couch and stared out the window to the park. Three teenage girls lounged on a picnic bench under the gazebo, laughing and chatting. A dull ache throbbed in my chest.
I glanced at Bubby in the recliner – she’d have to do.
“Bubby, I got problems.”
She put down her knitting in her lap and peered at me through her thick cat glasses. Taking this as an invitation I launched into a rant.
“Jeremy was supposed to be this great match for my sister, but I didn’t know and I fixed him up with this really nice girl, Tamara, and they seem to be crazy about each other, but I can’t tell anyone because Aunt Mira and Leah really wanted Jeremy to go out with her and now they’re going to be so mad when they find out that I fixed them up and Leah will get even angrier at me, since it’s my fault her engagement is broken. And Mom will be upset with me – again. Oh, and Mrs. Levine hates me and the girls are really unfriendly here and I’m terrified that if I mess up I’ll have to go back to my parents in Hong Kong and finish high school by correspondence.”
I couldn’t believe that I unburdened myself to somebody with hair growing out of her chin.
“Let’s get some pizza,” she said, dropping her knitting into the fabric bag at her feet.
I stared at her in awe. Until five minutes ago it didn’t even occur to me that she had teeth.
“You can do that?”
“Don’t be ridiculous. Go get my purse. It has my credit card.”
Raina Resnick is in disgrace. The 16-year-old has been sent to live with relatives in a Toronto Orthodox Jewish neighbourhood after being expelled from her Manhattan Jewish private school. The circumstances of her expulsion are not revealed until late in the book. Her parents have moved to Hong Kong, and another screw up means she’ll join them and be even more isolated. Until her year in New York, Rain’s family moved so much that she never learned to make friends. Without her NYC crowd, her only friend is her sister, Leah, who wants nothing to do with her. Rain is lonely and rudderless. When two singles she set up on a date fall in love, Rain accidentally becomes an in-demand anonymous matchmaker. She embraces her new role as the Matchmaven because she hopes to find a great catch for Leah and win back her affection. Along the way, Raina is on call for any number of crazy, disastrous and wonderful dates. Her matchmaking disrupts her precarious life even more as she has little time for school work, and her family wonders why she is acting oddly, keeping secrets and disappearing at unusual times. Eventually, Rain’s secret and her big heart are revealed at the second wedding she is responsible for, and she is finally vindicated.
Playing with Matches is compulsively readable. It is absolute fun, and Rain is the best kind of narrator - funny, engaging, well-meaning and usually a little out of control. She has a great heart. She’s misunderstood. She has a completely captivating voice and is extremely likeable. Rain learns a lot throughout the book, and the lessons always happen in believable ways. She realizes how she hurt a teacher at her old school and does what she can to make amends. She learns that the headmistress who is making her life miserable has problems of her own. She maintains a successful career and is a benefit to her community. I could not put the book down, but unfortunately it does not stand up to much reflection or scrutiny. The narrative speeds along so fast that it skips over anything contentious and almost never probes or even acknowledges the important issues that are raised.
One of the more problematic elements is the relationship between Rain and her sister, Leah. When the book opens, Leah is returning to Toronto from New York where she was planning to get her wedding dress. Instead, she reveals that her fiancé Ben has broken up with her. Later, Rain discovers that Ben’s main reason is an objection to the family, specifically her. Leah is deeply depressed, and her self-esteem is shattered despite her many other achievements. While Leah tries to contain her anger and frustration with Rain, she puts their relationship on hold, a state especially difficult for Rain as Leah is her best friend and the rock in an ever-changing life. I found it difficult to believe that this tight-knit family in which interpersonal relationships are paramount could fall apart so quickly and completely. Nor does anyone else step in to help Rain: not her difficult aunt, her brow-beaten uncle or her headstrong hedonistic grandmother (the family member she actually resembles most). That Rain would be ignored by her community and ostracized by her loving sister did not seem right. Rain is obviously struggling and suffering, and yet she is left alone. Not only is it out of sync with the values the book espouses, it does not seem credible.
Also troubling is the assumption that marriage and children are the only things in life worth having. Every character is dying to be married, and the couples Rain matches typically get engaged within a couple of weeks and marry within a few months. Yet no character ever reflects on the problems of quick marriages or the pitfalls of a custom which makes a 22-year-old woman feel like a useless spinster. No one comments on relationships which have turned sour or other desires or aspirations which must be sacrificed in order to conform. Nor is there an example of a happy single character who presents an alternative. Rain explains that this is just their cultural norm, but she does not seem like the kind of character to just accept every rule without at least thinking about it. That there is dark side to this heart-warming mad-cap matchmaking is obvious, but it is ignored. Young readers deserve a more balanced perspective.
Playing with Matches is definitely not educational even though on the surface it may seem like an illuminating portrait of an Orthodox Jewish community. There are a number of restrictive rules in the community, especially for young women, but none of them are ever mentioned, even in passing. I don’t feel that someone with no knowledge of Orthodox Judaism would have any more insight into it after reading this book, except that everyone is desperate to marry fast. Readers see that the community is tight-knit, that people are always volunteering and helping each other, and there are some cultural references to Jewish holidays and rituals, but there isn’t much sense of what the important cultural or religious ideas are which bring this group of Jews together. While delving too deeply into this might have broken up the amusing and readable nature of this novel, more details illustrating this particular community could have given the story more depth.
Playing with Matches is a book for teen girls, and most of the audience will enjoy it as a light read. It is refreshing that, while the book is all about romance (or at least finding a suitable partner), there is no romance for the main character. Other relationships are celebrated as Rain gradually makes an assortment of friends of all ages through her matchmaking. Despite some flaws, it is possible to enjoy this story as entertainment as long as readers don’t look for much meaning. It’s too bad, though, because there are a lot of significant issues which could have been inserted without losing the sense of fun.
Kris Rothstein is a children’s book agent and reviewer in Vancouver, BC.
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