Mr. Perfect on Paper

There aren’t many books written by an author who has earned a daytime Emmy, “and spent five years in rabbinical school before her chronic illness forced her to withdraw.” 

That author is Jean Meltzer.

(You might remember I raved about Ms. Meltzer’s first novel, The Matzah Ball, in a blog post from several months ago. Click here if you missed it.)

And as was the case in her first novel, Ms. Meltzer’s second book also features a main character who is a Jewish woman living with an invisible chronic illness. 

The book is Mr. Perfect on Paper. The character is Dara Rabinowtiz.  

Mr. Perfect on Paper was such an enjoyable read. Smart, funny, heartfelt. Plus, it gave readers a chance to learn about Jewish holidays in an easy-to-understand manner. Most of all, it gave us characters we cared about.

Here are a few of the passages I marked during my reading:

“He beamed as he entered, a bounce in his step, offering a hearty good morning to each person he passed. He was a champ at this. Faking it. Looking happy. Smiling through whatever pain was threatening to drown him.”

“There were days when Dara was so exhausted from her struggles that she could barely find the courage to get out of bed. It was then that her mother would show up, standing over her — and sometimes tearing off her covers — demanding that she fight. Fight, Dara. Her mother would repeat it like a mantra on her bad days. You’re allowed to be afraid, you’re allowed to be anxious, but you have to fight.” 

“There isn’t one way to be Jewish,” she said, finally. “Some people are very observant. Some people aren’t. Some people fall in the middle of the spectrum, or have different philosophies behind the reasons for their observance. Some people don’t do anything. When two Jews marry, they have to negotiate these religious choices. For example, will they keep a kosher home? Will they observe Shabbat? Will you cover your hair, or go to mikvah? Those are some of the big ones…”

“But,” Dara said thoughtfully, “you learn to live with it. The sadness never goes away. Maybe it never gets smaller, either. But after a time, you learn to hold both. You learn that joy still exists … there’s still laughter, and falling in love, and —“ she smiled, glancing down at the crumbs of her pizza “—there’s still jalapeño-and-pineapple pizza. You learn that good things still happen. You meet someone. You fall in love. Maybe you even get married. And when you walk down that aisle, you hold both. You hold the joy of the moment alongside your sadness for the one who can’t be there.” 

“But what I learned from this journey, from finding my real-life Mr. Perfect on Paper, is that love isn’t something that can be quantified on a list. Love is messy. And terrifying. It shows up when you least expect it, and complicates your life in every way. But it’s also … safe. And comforting. It allows you to be yourself completely, without judgment or fear, and it feels right. I don’t know how something so incredibly scary can also feel right, but I need to give this inkling in my heart —in my soul—a chance.”

“I know you think…because you have anxiety, that you’re not brave. But that’s not true. I’ve been thinking about it a lot, actually, and here’s what I want to tell you. Courage ins’t about jumping out of airplanes or building businesses from scratch. Real courage is showing up, even when you’re afraid. Real courage is putting yourself out there, even when you fail — especially when you fail. Courage is saying, this is who I am, standing up, allowing yourself to be vulnerable. And you are brave, Dara. You’re the bravest person I have ever met.”

The Matzah Ball

Sometimes you find a book, or a book finds you, and you just want to tell everyone about it. You want to grab the pom-poms you never owned and create a cheer for this book. Then you want to place the book into the hands of readers everywhere. 

That’s how I feel about The Matzah Ball by Jean Meltzer.

The Matzah Ball is a holiday romance with a twist. It’s a Hanukkah romance, and our main character, Rachel, lives with a chronic illness. Right away I was intrigued, and the book did not disappoint. (Additionally, the author is a Jewish woman living with a chronic illness — myalgic encephalomyelitis.)

I loved getting a glimpse into some of the Jewish traditions I’m less familiar with. I loved seeing Rachel and all the messiness that comes with a chronic illness depicted on the page. And, I loved that this book gave Rachel, and by extension – me as the reader, the happy ending I was hoping for. 

I read a library copy which I tagged with many sticky notes, which means I now need to buy my own copy at my next bookstore visit. 

This week, I’m excited to share just a few of the passages that stood out to me:

“Turning beneath the covers, she blinked and took a careful accounting of how she was feeling. Would it be a good day or a bad day? She could never be certain.
Some mornings she woke up feeling well, only to find herself completely depleted two hours later. Sometimes it was the opposite. She would crash for days at a time, with no ability to do even the most menial tasks. Her disease was constant but fluid. It peaked and ebbed with only one discernible pattern. Everything she did, everything, from writing two pages to carrying the groceries one block to her apartment, came with a kickback.
It was her normal.”

“There was no way to know how long these crashes would last. It could be hours, days, weeks…or even years. The only way to avoid the flare-ups was through a very unscientific method of pacing oneself and rest.
The problem was, of course, that Rachel was awful at pacing herself or resting.
On good days, she pushed even harder. On bad days, she still pushed…usually making herself way worse in the process.”

“She wasn’t ‘out’ about her disease. She wasn’t out about …anything. Sitting in a wheelchair meant accepting you were disabled and dealing with awkward stares from healthy people.
Most of all, and because she had a disease with a name like chronic fatigue syndrome, there was always a fear tucked away inside of her that someone would look at her and say she was doing this for attention. That she really wasn’t that sick. And so, though a wheelchair would certainly make her more mobile and give her a higher quality of life, she often chose to stay home.”