Wendy: At present, the romance section of bookstores teems with contemporaries so hot they might combust, paranormals that stretch the imagination to its furthest reaches, and Regencies that have finally arrived at a genetic bottleneck of population destroying proportions. There was a time, not too long ago, when heroes were more likely to push cattle than fear sunlight and frontier heroines did what they could to further peaceful relations with Native Americans (ok, Cassie Edwards never stopped writing that book). Lately, whispers and rumors have abounded that the long dead western would once again rise to the forefront. There’s some difficulty in imagining tales of westward expansion exciting a romance community that is more demanding and sophisticated now than it was when westerns were last well-liked. It would seem that if westerns are to make the predicted comeback they’ll need to do so on a fresh horse.
With her debut novel, Matchmaker, Matchmaker, Joanne Sundell offers up a historical western that is partly fresh and partly familiar. What’s different and exciting about the novel is that its heroine, Zoe-Esther Zundelevich, is newly graduated from a Philadelphia medical school (one of only three women in the graduating class of 1867) and that she is a Russian Jew who, with her Papa Yitzhak, left her village outside of Kiev along with the fear and violence associated with the Cossacks to immigrate to America. Zoe-Esther’s is a background not often seen in the genre—or any of its sub-genres—more importantly, it’s one that does not stay confined to back story, but creates believable and ongoing conflict. For Zoe-Esther, her culture and religion define her identity. She is a Jew who observes Sabbath while surrounded by a goy population that is unwilling to accept or understand difference, plus she is an observant Jew whose father believes she should marry someone like herself in order to keep their traditions alive.
Zoe-Esther, rather predictably, doesn’t want to marry. She has some archetypal protests of honoring and obeying chafing against her personality and her desire to practice medicine. Despite this, she harbors fantasies of a man whose face never comes into sharp focus, but whose name she keeps secreted away. Prior to leaving Russia, Zoe-Esther visited a schadchen, a matchmaker, who told her the name of the man who would be her destiny. For Zoe-Esther having the name of the man she is to marry is both a blessing a curse. The schadchen predicted there was someone special, meant just for Zoe-Esther, and she cherishes the idea, but the knowledge makes a relationship with anyone whose name didn’t come from the matchmaker doomed to failure and heartbreak.
After her graduation, Zoe-Esther and Yitzhak leave Philadelphia behind and head for the clean, dry air of the Colorado frontier for fear that Yitzhak’s increasingly nagging cough is the deadly tuberculosis. In the process Zoe-Esther gives up a hospital willing to employ her and a marriage proposal from good friend Daniel Stein, whom her father deems a good match. But Daniel is not the name the matchmaker gave Zoe-Esther.
Zoe-Esther and her father arrive in Golden City, Colorado with little money and an immediate need for work and lodging. While searching for a boarding house, Zoe-Esther runs into Jake Whiskey, owner and operator of the Golden Gates (Golden City’s tavern and gambling hall). Jake is driven to succeed—he measures success in dollars—and is embarrassed by his hardscrabble past and lack of family. With the hero and heroine in place, Matchmaker, Matchmaker treads into too familiar territory and allows much to happen without preamble. Zoe-Esther and Jake are both instantly attracted and compelled by each other and respond by taking an immediate and unfounded dislike to one another. Like Daniel, Jake is not the name from the matchmaker and yet there is something about him that sets Zoe-Esther’s heart aflutter. Sundell brings the hero and heroine together under circumstances that are not organic but forced, then moves the characters through mercurial moods that change position seemingly mid-sentence. Forced or otherwise, the romance that springs is sweet and endearing as Jack and Zoe-Esther battle one another, themselves, and their enemies.
Unfortunately, Matchmaker, Matchmaker disappoints with storytelling that allows the most important scenes to unfold off the page and gives the reader the retelling of events after they’ve happened. In addition, the narrative is interior, staying with characters’ internal dialog at the expense of action and the grounding of setting. Had the promising premise come together with more nimble and experienced storytelling, Sundell might have turned Matchmaker, Matchmaker into the prototype for a new wave of the western romance. Instead, she falls too easily into the obligatory devices of what’s come before and ends up breaking little new ground beyond the main character’s initial pages. A Russian Jew in the back country of Colorado embroiled in a love affair with a seemingly non-religious American strains credibility in a serious way especially since this story point doesn’t move beyond the requisite protests of “mustn’t marry a non-Jew.” It is often difficult in today’s culture for people of any particular religion to marry outside of their faith, in the 1860s in a notably non-cosmopolitan setting, it would have been an aberration of Biblical size.
HelenKay: Many western romances start with a premise of a heroine from a well-off family moving to the rugged West in search of a new life. Dead parents, abandoned fiancees back East, deadly diseases and virginal heroines are the norm. Matchmaker, Matchmaker includes many of these popular plot points but provides the added twist of a Jewish heroine who arrives from Russia by way of Philadelphia. Religion and tradition are central elements, and arguably the only conflict, in this sweet romance.
As a child in a village in Russia Zoe-Esther Zundelevich snuck away to see a matchmaker. The wise woman told Zoe-Esther that her perfect match was a man named Yaakov. As Zoe-Esther moves from medical school in Philadelphia to the Colorado Territory, she waits for her path to cross with the mysterious Yaakov. In school she befriends fellow medical student Daniel Stein. She views him as a friend – after all, he’s no Yaakov. Daniel wants something more with Zoe-Esther but is willing to wait while she Zoe-Esther travels with her sick father to Colorado in search of a cure for a way to control his tuberculosis.
Once in Colorado with her father, Zoe-Esther finds that people in the West are no more accepting of a female doctor than were people in the East. She is turned away the town’s medical practices and shunned by the townspeople both for her chosen occupation and for being Jewish. One of the people in town who doesn’t seem to care about Zoe-Esther’s ethnicity is Jake Whiskey, a drinker, gambler and the town’s saloon owner. He is all wrong for Zoe-Esther. Then there is his involvement with Belle, a prostitute and his steady companion. Belle’s takes out her jealousy over Jake’s obvious interest in Zoe-Esther on Jake. Her actions push Jake out of town and make room for Daniel to re-enter the picture.
Sundell sets up promising conflicts in the Zoe-Esther/Belle/Jake and Zoe-Esther/Jake/Daniel triangles. The potential for a "fight" over Zoe-Esther by the men, or an act of vengeance against Zoe-Esther by Belle are great. Neither of those conflicts actually come to fruition. For reasons that are not clear, Belle takes out her anger on Jake. The move derails the plot momentum and has the unfortunate side effect of putting Jake into a subplot that unfolds entirely off screen. At the same time, thanks to Zoe-Esther’s matchmaking father, Daniel arrives on the scene. Daniel’s love for Zoe-Esther has not faltered. Due to family pressures, tradition and a promise made to her father, Zoe-Esther abandons her heart. Her decision, which should be emotional and difficult, is made easier by the fact Jake is not present to provide extra tension.
This tendency to have major plot points take place off the page is a problem in Matchmaker, Matchmaker. Jake’s life changes and his love for Zoe-Esther crystallizes elsewhere. Belle’s revenge happens as a side note, rather than as a major turning point. In starting the book before the action, then in continuing to have the action be explained more by reference than by showing, Matchmaker, Matchmaker loses its richness. The romance is sweet and hopeful. Jewish tradition mixes seamlessly with the western romance. The problem here is not in trying something new. Rather, it is one of emphasis and depth.
The characters suffer from the same issue. For example, tradition and obligation rule Zoe-Esther’s life. She does what she is supposed to do and what she has to do to make a life for her and for her father. As the plot progresses, there is a growing sense of her need to breakout and do something for herself. To take love when it’s offered. However, when the end of the books comes, she hasn’t attained that growth. Life happens to her. She is not an active participant. And, once again, whatever change she needs to make to overcome everything standing in her way happens off the page. The result is a feeling of being a little cheated in not being able to see the full life of this potentially amazing woman.
Matchmaker, Matchmaker is a sweet and charming tale. The characters are likable and endearing. The sense at the end of the book is that these interesting people moved throughout the pages without much change. It is that missing piece that keeps the book from being the full-bodied read it could be.
Wendy’s Question: Long ago we made a commitment that the review choices here at PBR should be as diverse as possible. None of the books chosen for review are casual picks. The possible titles are scrutinized and debated over; sometime books are rejected because, "I’m over the snarky vampire thing," or championed because, "you know, we’ve never done XYZ." We rely most heavily on the jacket copy synopsis to guide our choices. In the case of Matchmaker, Matchmaker my interests were captured because it’s a non-European set historical featuring a Russian Jewish protagonist. That really stands out in a field otherwise dominated by Regencies and London’s ton. However, half of Matchmaker, Matchmaker’s synopsis is devoted to what turns out to be back story. In general, what responsibility does the synopsis have for accurately portraying a book’s contents? Is the sole purpose to catch the attention of a reader? Or, should the synopsis dutifully report with accuracy?
HelenKay’s Response: The synopsis/cover copy, like the cover, is an opportunity for the author (through the publisher) to catch the book buyer’s attention. With so many readers buying based on their auto-buy authors and little else, an author only has so many opportunities to win over new readers. The risk in having copy that doesn’t match content is in turning off the reader and preventing future sales. For me, it’s less a matter of the plot line being set out with perfection than it is tone. If I read light and witty content then I want a light and witty book. The cover, copy and tone should all match the delivery inside.
Here, the copy was accurate. It described the first 40 pages. The book actually picks up after the copy ends. Despite that, I didn’t feel cheated because what drew me to this – the reason I didn’t say "no way" when you proposed reviewing it – was the idea of a Jewish heroine in a historical setting. Sundell delivers on that point. Being Jewish is integral to the plot. That is what I wanted to read. And I did.
Wendy’s Final Thought: A sweet and endearing romance that doesn’t reach full potential.
HelenKay’s Final Thought: Warm and charming but not as full and rich as it could be, or as you’ll want it to be.