|Some readers dismiss Chick Lit books as nothing more than a bunch of redundant Bridget Jones wannabe’s and Sex and the City clones, but the genre has redeemed itself in my eyes by widening the cultural definition of heroine and hero. While most contemporary romance novels take place in WASP heaven, Chick Lit has featured heroines from diverse backgrounds without necessarily stooping to ethnic stereotypes. The heroine of The Matzo Ball Heiress, Heather Greenblotz, is Jewish, but she doesn’t utter one heartfelt “Oy!” throughout the novel. Nor does she have a mother who wants her to marry a nice Jewish doctor. In fact, Heather has the opposite problem. It’s this clash of expectation vs. reality that makes this novel by Laurie Gwen Shapiro so appealingly fun.
Every Passover, Heather Greenblotz is reminded of the fact that she has little connection to her religion, despite being one of the heirs to the number one matzo company in the U.S. Greenblotz Matzo’s motto may be “Because Family is Everything” but Heather usually spends the holiday alone, her mother away on one of her endless cruises and her father finding refuge in another country where his homosexuality is more readily accepted. Heather’s cousin Jake runs the matzo factory, but he’s hardly observant either, and his fiancée is an Irish immigrant named Siobhan.
When a reporter from the Food Channel tours the factory and interviews Hannah for a program on food pioneers, he comes up with the brilliant idea of hosting a live broadcast of the annual Greenblotz seder, or ritual Passover meal. Jake confides to Heather that their market share is dwindling; they can’t afford to turn down free publicity like this. Too bad there’s no such thing as the Greenblotz seder. So Heather, an Emmy-award-winning documentary filmmaker, will just have to invent one. With the Greenblotz receptionist sitting in as Heather’s grandma and her Russian mailman invited to pose as her uncle, they might just be able to pull it off. But a few unexpected guests and the romantic interest of both the reporter and his cameraman lead to a seder that answers the holiday’s primary question “why is this night different from all other nights?” in a completely unforeseen manner.
You don’t have to be Jewish to appreciate The Matzo Ball Heiress (although it doesn’t hurt…). Heather thoughtfully explains the holidays and customs that she has eschewed for most of her life in her chatty first-person, present tense narrative. Through the process of planning the seder, and in her growing relationship with an observant Jewish guy, she comes to terms with her level of commitment to Judaism. She never consciously turned away from her religion, she just never chose how much of it to embrace. I was astonished to find a Chick Lit heroine who grapples with religious issues in such a genuine but entertaining manner.
Heather is a welcome change of pace from the typical Chick Lit heroine who barely holds onto her job as she searches for the perfect dress or the perfect man. She’s successful, self-confident and proud of her ability to think on her feet. The quirky secondary characters are an intriguing melting pot of African-American, Irish, Egyptian and even Tibetan. A few supporting players backfire; Hannah’s parents are a little too self-centered for their daughter to view them so amiably, and the inclusion of an Australian therapist, possibly a tribute to Shapiro’s Australian husband, seemed a little superfluous.
Shapiro’s style is competent but reflects her relative beginner’s status. The book’s humor is more gently amusing than laugh-out-loud funny, and after the build-up to the faux seder, the event itself is a bit anticlimactic. But in only her second novel (her debut, The Unexpected Salami, sounds worth checking out for the title alone), Shapiro proves to be an author to watch. If you want to expand your reading menu beyond cheeseburgers and apple pie, you will find The Matzo Ball Heiress to be a nourishing treat.