I don’t usually write book reviews, but Una LaMarche’s Like No Other was such a fun read that I was happy to examine it more closely. Like No Other is a great YA contemporary romance. Devorah and Jaxon meet when they get stuck in a hospital elevator together. As they start talking, they discover that they not only share interests but also live on the same street in Brooklyn. (Ed. Note — “For six years she worked on the fifteenth floor as a nurse where I had a practice on the fourteenth floor in the very same building.”
“I worked for a very prominent neurologist.” “We never met.” “Never met.”) But – oh no! – Devorah is a Hasidic Jew and her strict upbringing means she shouldn’t even be talking to boys alone, much less dating the cute Black one from the elevator. So, naturally, drama ensues.
The story is well-paced and Devorah and Jaxon’s relationship has all the fuzzy emotions of first love. Even though Devorah’s religion makes their dates and meetings forbidden, the tone of the romance is sweet and fun, rather than edgy or scandalous.
What sets this book apart and has placed it on so many to-read lists are the diverse protagonists.
Though the book is written in two alternating points of view, I think this is more Devorah’s story than Jaxon’s. Devorah is a dynamic character; she learns a lot about herself by the end of the book and the events of the story change her. By contrast Jaxon is relatively flat. He starts off as a sweet-as-pie, smart, responsible teenage boy and ends the story the same way. Jaxon is an excellent love interest for “frum from birth” Devorah. He’s a nice kid (she’s not rebelling; she’s in love!) and an even better foil. His presence highlights everything that makes Devorah an outsider. Jaxon can ask all the questions the readers who aren’t Jewish may be thinking:
“So you can’t have a cheeseburger?”
“You’re telling me you’ve never had a cheeseburger?”
“Never in my life.”
Jaxon’s role as the “typical Brooklyn teen” character impacts the narrative in interesting ways. In a narrative that focuses on the interracial aspect of the relationship, Jaxon, as a Black teenager with a White girlfriend, is in the marginalized position. But because the focus is on Devorah’s development and the (equally complex) interfaith aspect of the relationship, Jaxon, as an agnostic teenager with a Hasidic girlfriend, is privileged – to a point. LaMarche’s successes and limitations in writing “the Other” are most revealed in how she navigates the intersections of Devorah and Jaxon’s identities.
LaMarche says she did a lot of research in order to write Devorah’s character. It shows. The detail included about Devorah’s family, their personalities and interactions, and the family stories that pass down from previous generations add richness and fullness to her character. From the very first page, Devorah is placed within a context and a history.
With Jaxon, LaMarche “improvised a lot more” and that shows as well. Jaxon is neither a caricature of a Black teenager nor a simple subversion of every bad stereotype. Jaxon, himself, is wonderful. But where Devorah has strong ties to a community with deep roots, Jaxon, his family, and even his friends feel shallow. The reader gets details on Devorah’s grandparents, the town they’re from and how they met. From what I could gather Jaxon is simply “from the islands.”
LaMarche does not completely ignore the impact Blackness has on Jaxon’s lived experience. Early on, Devorah’s family calls attention to Jaxon’s Blackness, as does his friend Ryan. There are several instances where Jaxon is acutely aware of how others may perceive him because he is Black. Most of this feels superficial, however, leaving the harsher aspects untouched.
The characterization of Jaxon’s mother is really where the portrayal of the Black family fell apart for me. The mention of Trayvon Martin’s death put me on edge. It is always unnerving for me to see events appear in fiction, especially when the events are so tragic and the emotions are still raw. I felt that “Mom wouldn’t let me wear a hoodie for six months” was an inadequate summation of his mother’s probable reaction. Would the Black mother of a Black teenage boy living in Bloomberg’s New York think not wearing a hoodie would protect her son? I let that go quickly though, thinking of the rules my own mother makes when trying to protect my brothers.
[Minor spoilers ahead.]
I couldn’t get over how easily Jaxon’s mother accepts his relationship with Devorah. The circumstances of the reveal were not pleasant to say the least. I kept asking myself, would the Black mother of a Black son condone an interracial relationship where the girl’s family has demonstrated clear hostility? Probably not. I was further rankled when Jaxon’s mother encourages him to follow his heart by telling him the (very brief) story of how she and Jaxon’s father met. I was baffled at the idea that a Black woman would compare disliking a daughter’s boyfriend because he has a bad job to disliking a daughter’s boyfriend because he is Black.
The events of the story unfold as they do in large part because Jaxon is Black. Though Devorah isn’t supposed to be dating anyone (even a fellow Hasid, if my understanding is correct), the climax would have turned out differently if it were Jaxon’s white friend who’d fallen in love with Devorah.
Jaxon’s mother would understand all of this, and in the same protective impulse that made her forbid him from wearing hoodies, would (at least try to) forbid him from seeing Devorah. The only way Jaxon’s mother could be as supportive as she is (and be an effective contrast to Devorah’s strict family) is if she didn’t know Devorah was white.
And that’s the narrative choice LaMarche makes. Rather than reveal details about Devorah, Jaxon simply says, “they’re what you would call an exclusive group.” All the Black mothers I know would have pressed for more information until they knew everything, but Jaxon’s mother does not, allowing the book to bypass the impact and consequences of the most significant racialized plot point.
One of the hardest part of writing “the Other” is recognizing who the Other is. We know to research food and music and customs and religion. But often people assume that love, heartbreak, and parenting are experienced the same way by everyone. They’re not. While casting Jaxon as the relatable teenager serves the reader well, his character arc and the plot would be more compelling if his marginalized identity was explored as fully as Devorah’s.
I have so much more to say but I can’t without spoiling! If you’ve read this book already, please share your thoughts in the comments. To the rest of you, I definitely suggest you pick it up. I look forward to discussing it with you!
This book was sent to me for free by Penguin Canada in exchange for an honest review and participation in the Like No Other blog tour.
Also check out my Q&A with author Una LaMarche.
Léonicka Valcius is a Toronto-based publishing professional. She blogs about various topics, including diversity in the publishing industry, at www.leonicka.com. Follow her on Twitter at @leonicka.