This past week, I read two beautifully written young adult novels. Both feature a Romeo and Juliet trope which I also explore in my third YA novel, Leisha’s Song.
Interestingly, both books star Hasidic heroines who live in Crown Heights, New York. In Like No Other by Una LaMarche, Devorah, described as “a consummate good girl who has never challenged the ways of her strict Hasidic upbringing,” gets stuck on an elevator during a hurricane with Jaxon, a boy whose family hails from the West Indies. The two fall for one another and begin meeting secretly. Told in alternating viewpoints, the novel movingly depicts the intensity and beauty of their relationship. Of course, all hell breaks loose when her family discovers their strictly forbidden relationship. Jaxon is brutally beaten up by Devorah’s brother-in-law and his friends, and Devorah is sent away to Hasidic “rehab” while her family plots to arrange an appropriate marriage for her.
It’s impossible not to root for these star-crossed lovers, but at the end, Devorah can’t bring herself to leave her family and community. She dumps Jaxon and her consolation prize is to be “allowed” to go to college and postpone marriage.
Likewise, in Eva Wiseman’s The World Outside, seventeen-year old Chanie is expected to marry as soon as she graduates from high school. She dreams of becoming a singer, a forbidden career. But when she meets David, a boy outside her tight knit community, he encourages her to pursue her dreams and helps her arrange an audition at Juilliard where she is accepted on scholarship. By the end, however, she gives up both David and her chance to attend Juilliard to remain in her community and marry the Hasidic boy chosen for her.
The endings of both of these stories are undoubtedly realistic—which is probably why I hated them! I admit it. I’m a hopeless romantic who loves nothing more than a “Happily Ever After” or at the very least, “Happily for Now,” ending to love stories.
And perhaps my dislike of these endings also stems from being a bit too much like both Devorah and Chanie in my younger years. Obviously, I’m not Hasidic, but I certainly grew up with an extremely controlling father I wanted desperately to please. When I look back upon myself as a young woman, I am disappointed in my own failure to stand up for myself. Engaged by my senior year in college, I knew I had strong misgivings about getting married. My husband-to-be was a wonderful young man, but we were so different and envisioned different futures for our lives. I’d also been offered a fellowship to do graduate work at Harvard, and really wanted to take it. But when push came to shove, I did what I’d always done—I pleased my father and both of our families by getting married and giving up grad school.
However understandable and realistic Devorah and Chanie’s choices were, as well as my own, I prefer fictional endings where young people are brave enough to affirm who they are and whom they love. After all, as someone once said, shouldn’t our fiction be “the writer’s revenge on reality”?