Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Like No Other by Una LaMarche

Like No Other tells the story of two star-crossed lovers, a black boy from Brooklyn and a Hasidic Jewish girl who are thrown together due to unforeseen circumstances.

Sixteen year old Devorah Frayda Blum is a Hasidic Jew who lives in New York. She has six siblings, three sisters; Rose who is eighteen and married to Jacob, fifteen year old Hanna and eleven year old Miriam as well as three brothers, Isaac, Niv and Amos.  It is late August and the city is preparing for a hurricane. The mayor has issued evacuation orders for those areas near the rivers and power at the hospital is flickering on and off.  Devorah is at the hospital with Rose who has gone into labour, seven weeks before her due date in October.  Not only is this bad for the baby but a category three hurricane is bearing down on the city and her parents are upstate in Monsey with her aunt Varda who has had foot surgery.

Rose's husband, Jacob comes from a very strict Hasidic family who feels he's morally superior to everyone. Rose was matched to Jacob Kleinman last year by the shadchan and since her wedding she's changed, subduing her desire for fun and for pushing against the rules. In their religion, because Rose has started bleeding, Jacob cannot be with her due to the laws of yoledet. This means Devorah will have to be with her sister during the baby's birth. Devorah is present for her niece's birth and is completely overwhelmed by the beauty and wonder of Liya Sara birth. With Rose is now resting, Liya in the NCIU and Jacob missing, Devorah decides to take the elevator down to the cafeteria in the basement.

Meanwhile sixteen year old Jaxon Hunte finds himself at the hospital after his best friend, Ryan Hendrick dislocated his shoulder`trying to jump his skateboard over a downed tree. Jaxon's been trying to catch the interest of Polly Jadhav whom he's been crushing on for a whole year.  Ryan and Jaxon had just gone to school to get their schedules and new ID photos but Ryan decided to impress Polly and now they are at the emergency room. Jaxon decides to take the elevator to the basement to get something to eat in the cafeteria when the power cuts out.

Devorah and Jaxon find themselves trapped together in the hospital elevator. At first Devorah is horrified because she is violating the laws of yichud which means that she is not allowed to be alone with a strange man.  Jaxon introduces himself but is met with silence at first by Devorah who has backed into a corner. Jaxon tries to see if there is a way to get out of the elevator through the ceiling but soon decides it's too risky. Devorah at first thinks Jaxon is showing off but when she sees how hard he is trying to make her feel safe, she begins to relax. They learn that they are in fact neighbours geographically with Jaxon, on one side of the street and Devorah on the other. Soon the two are talking about their families. Devorah reveals that to Jaxon that she belongs to a Hasidic sect, known as Chabad-Lubavitch while Jaxon tells her that he is Roman Catholic. Although he tells Devorah that he feels more like agnostic, she admits at least inwardly about feeling the same about her religion too. Devorah feels guilty about continuing to talk with Jaxon because it is forbidden for her to talk to him or to even be alone with him, according to the laws of yichud. However, Devorah is impressed by Jaxon's honesty and attempts to understand her way of life.

Jaxon's ability to choose his own life makes Devorah feel dissatisfied and a bit jealous.
"Jaxon will graduate high school, just like me, but he'll get to decide where he wants to go and what he wants to do with his life, while my parents will go to a shadchan to find me a husband, whether I'm ready or not. Forget that my grades are better than either of my older brothers' ever were...It is simply expected that my education will end when I am married.....I will be someone's prize...."
When the elevator starts moving upward, Jaxon attempts to give Devorah his number but she warns him to act like he doesn't know her.When the doors open Jaxon's friend, Ryan, is waiting for him and Devorah's brother-in-law, Jacob is there too and not very pleased.

They both go their separate ways but neither can really forget the other. Hanna brings up the Elevator Incident" one day at dinner questioning their father about violating yichud in an unintended way. At school her best friend, Shoshana questions her about the stranger revealing to Devorah that many of the girls secretly watch movies, text boys and sneak gossip magazines into their rooms. But when Devorah mentions going to visit Jaxon at his place of work, Shoshana tells her that she can never do this. Shoshana mentions Ruchy Silverman, the pretty girl a year older than Devorah who suddenly took a trip to Israel and who Shoshana reveals had a boyfriend from NYU and who became pregnant.

Then one day while working at her parent's store, Devorah asks her father if she can accompany her younger sister Hanna on an errand. Devorah realizes that the errand will take her across the street from Wonder Wings, the fast food restaurant where Jaxon works. While Hanna is inside the pharmacy, Devorah walks into Wonder Wings, surprising Jaxon but arranging to meet him the next day in the Brooklyn Botanic Gardens. When Jaxon is unable to meet Devorah, he shows up at the hospital several days later during a visit by Devorah and her family to see Rose and the new baby who is still in the NCIU. Jaxon and Devorah meet in the stairwell giving Jaxon the opportunity to explain why he missed meeting her. Devorah tells him how impossible it will be for them to see one another, that it is forbidden. When Jaxon kisses her she tells him that somehow she will contact him to arrange another meeting.

Afterwards, Devorah wonders about life outside her community. "...all my life I've been told that there is nothing for me outside the Chabad community, no opportunity for any happiness in the greater world. I only wish I knew if this were true."
Determined to find out what really happened to Ruchy Silverman, Devorah surreptitiously uses her father's laptop to search for both Ruchy and Jaxon. She learns the truth behind Ruchy and finds Jaxon's profile on Facebook. Devorah creates fake profile to contact Jaxon so they can arrange to meet.

Jaxon and Devorah's blossoming relationship begins to run into trouble when Jacob confronts Devorah, telling her he saw her with Jaxon. He threatens to expose the situation to her father unless she stops seeing Jaxon. Determined to get around Jacob, Jaxon gives Devorah a cell phone loaded with minutes so she can contact him. Meeting one another becomes almost impossible so Jaxon takes her to his home one Sunday so they can have some privacy. Although Jaxon is wanting to become more intimate with Devorah, she is starting to recognize the implications their relationship will have for them given their different cultures.

Catastrophe strikes when Devorah's cell phone rings while the family is gathered in the living room. Hoping to help her sister, Hanna suggests that it must be the radio in a passing car, but Jacob will not be deterred. Although Jacob is unable to locate the cell phone, Devorah realizes that she has to return the phone to Jaxon and arranges to meet him at the Brooklyn Public Library. She tries to tell Jaxon that they need to take a break, because for her the consequences will be serious. However, this only leads Jaxon to suggest they find some time to be alone, to leave Brooklyn for one night so they can  figure out how to make things work. Jaxon arranges for him and Devorah to go to Ryan's parent's house in the Hamptons the following evening, but when Jaxon arrives to pick her up, they are discovered by the Shomrim - in this case Jacob.  Devorah is taken back to her parents, while Jaxon is badly beaten by an man who was with Jacob. With any chance of their seeing one another now lost, both Jaxon and Devorah must come to terms with the consequences of their forbidden love and what it will mean for them and their families.


Una LaMarche has written a wonderful novel that cleverly captures the bitter-sweetness of a first love that's also a forbidden love when two young people whose lives normally would never have intersected are thrown together. Caught within the bonds of culture, family expectations and religious rules, Jaxon and Devorah struggle to make their relationship work against enormous odds. Ultimately the are unable to do so, but both learn important lessons along the way.  LaMarche tells their story from both Jaxon and Devorah's perspectives and their narratives are distinct and realistic. While Jaxon is witty and self-deprecating, Devorah's is more serious and filled with the cares of a strict upbringing. Virtually all the major characters in the story undergo some kind of journey and are changed as a result of Devorah and Jaxon's relationship.

Devorah is the good girl, who is beautiful and virtuous, who will make a grand match for her family. She is "unfailingly obedient", a straight A student who dresses properly and never breaks curfew. Her parents are thrilled with her but for Devorah, "the life of a good girl, of a doting wife and mother, is a cloudless blue sky stretching across a flat horizon. " She wants to be in "the eye of the storm." a somewhat incorrect analogy because the eye of a hurricane is actually calm. Meeting Jaxon changes her, broadens her view of life and gets her to wondering what is outside the insular world of the Hasidic community.  She tells Jaxon this when she's at his home:
"That night changed everything. In the span of an hour my whole world cracked open, and I saw life. Literally, I saw life being born, and then I met you, and I saw life that was so different from the one I'd been living. I saw a future that could be so different. And that's what I want to do. I want to bring more life into the world, ...I want to be there when other people experience that moment."
At first Devorah sees Jacob as representing that freedom to experience life more fully, but gradually she comes to recognize that their relationship won't work and could be endangering the very freedom - to determine her own path that she is seeking.

Eventually when she is forcibly taken to the Chabad Residential Treatment Center, Hasidic center for rebellious teens, Devorah must confront the reality that her parents will force her to marry an eighteen year old to preserve their standing in the Hasidic community. Instead of acquiescing to their demands, she recognizes that she has to take control of her situation. Inspired by Ruchy and how she was able to get what she wanted, Devorah refuses to submit to an arranged sham marriage to David, the man the matchmaker has selected. She manages to get him to acknowledge that he too doesn't want to get married and then she apologizes to his parents. In the treatment center she confronts her own parents and the rabbi. While her parents see her refusal of David as "burning her bridges" that will lead to loneliness, Devorah sees it differently.
"I fear that if I continue on the path that's been set for me, I'll look back later with resentment."
"It's not that I reject our entire culture. I just want to see what else is out there. I just want to feel more free."
Although she cannot define "freedom" to the rabbi or her parents, Devorah knows enough that the Hasidic way of life is not what she wants at this time and it's not something she totally understands yet.
"Before the night of the Shomrim incident, ... I can barely remember a time when I saw my mother truly unhappy. She seems to love the life she leads, which may be why I feel so guilty for not wanting to emulate her path. After all, how can something that brings my mother -- and my idolized big sister -- such joy and fulfillment feel to me like such a desolate prison? Doesn't one of us have to be wrong?
Jaxon too undergoes a journey. At the end of the novel we learn that Jaxon's mission in life is not that far from what Devorah wants when he tells his teacher, he wants "to spend the rest of my life...helping people find their way in life, whether it's my sisters, my tutees, or other people I love who shall go unnamed." While Devorah recognizes the gift that Jaxon gave her - to see the world differently and to find her own path, Jaxon also recognizes that he helped Devorah. In the end Jaxon discovers that you can't force a relationship to work; sometimes the timing is wrong and sometimes cultural restrictions and family expectations are impossible to circumvent. Jaxon tried to force a relationship with Polly at the beginning of the novel by forcing meetings with her in the hallways and outside her classes. She wasn't ready at that time but while he was seeing Devorah, Polly began to notice him and it is she who seeks him out at the end of the novel.

Devorah's mother is changed by the Shomrim incident and what happens at the treatment center. She realizes what is happening to Devorah is similar to what happened to her mother - that she is feeling trapped by their way of life and she does not want her to be hurt in the way that her grandmother was. This leads her to tell Devorah the shocking truth behind the family myth about her grandmother being lifted up and flying during a storm and to give Devorah the chance to express what she wants in life and to make her own decisions within the context of their family.

In the novel, The World Outside by Eva Wiseman, the Lubavitch sect seemed merely like a different type of Judaism but in Like No Other, the Chabad-Lubavitch sect is portrayed more like a religious cult. Girls receive no higher education, men also receive no higher education but are expected to undertake religious studies, women are married off young through arranged marriages that they often have no say in and live in a very insular community where contact with outsiders is strictly forbidden, in fact, considered sinful. As a result, as one character states, there are no Hasidic doctors, lawyers or other professionals.

The character who represents the strictest form of the Chabad-Lubavitch sect is Rose's husband, Jacob, who seems to recognize Devorah's disdain for him and her rebellious streak against some of the rules. Devorah sees how Rose's marriage to Jacob has changed her, taken her spirit away describing her as "a wifely watercolor of her former self." Later in the novel, when Rose accompanies Devorah to the Chabad treatment center, Devorah pushes Rose about her marriage to Jacob and how it has changed her."You used to speak up for yourself. Now he just pushes you around. You're like a zombie." Rose defends herself but to Devorah she seems in denial. She also tells Rose that Jaxon changed how she looked at life, " was like I had been looking down at the ground my whole life, and he was the first person to point my chin up to the sky." and that she doesn't know for sure if she ever wants to be a wife and mother, but that she knows that she does not at this time. Later on Devorah does come to understand that Rose being happily married is Rose's path but not hers.

Like No Other is a well written novel, with a great storyline, a sweet innocent romance between two young people trying to determine their path in life while coping with the differences they bring to their relationship as a result of their cultures. In the end, Devorah and Jaxon, despite their cultural and religious differences have very similar goals in life. It's a powerful coming of age story with themes of identity, self discovery, and the struggle of a young woman determined to forge her own path in life.

Book Details:
Like No Other
New York: Razorbill      2014
347 pp.

No comments: