October 20, 2014

Playing with Matches

by Suri Rosen
ECW Press
256 pp.
Ages 11+
September, 2014

Forgive me my ignorance but I have to share my silly prediction about Playing with Matches before I read the book. When I first read the title, I thought the book must deal with arson and lighting fires.  Wrong!  But, though Playing with Matches doesn't have anything to do with fire, teen narrator Raina Resnick learns pretty quickly that you can still get burned with romantic matches!

With her older sister Leah getting married in a few months to Ben and starting their new life together in Toronto, Raina is sent to live with her Aunt Mira and Uncle Eli in Toronto to provide some stability from her parents' regular migrations for her dad's work and to be there for her sister prior to the marriage.  But when Ben calls off the wedding because of Raina's behaviour and Leah blames Raina for ruining her happiness, Raina feels completely friendless.  Not surprising she befriends a woman, Tamara, with whom she regularly sits on the bus to school.  In fact, learning that Tamara is single and desperate to find a life partner, Leah arranges for her to meet Jeremy, the thirty-ish Jewish man who boards with Aunt Mira and Uncle Eli.

This is the beginning of Matchmaven.com, the site Raina uses to communicate anonymously and arrange the match between Tamara and Jeremy which is a hit. (Though not so much for Leah whom Aunt Mira had planned to set up with Jeremy!)  But when Tamara shares the site with her friends, including Leah, Raina is left wondering whether she actually has a gift for matchmaking or if it was just luck.

Meanwhile, Raina is being watched very carefully at home and at school to ensure she's not up to her old antics.  Taking care of her grandmother, Bubby Bayla, Raina finds the older woman has great spirit and skill for getting into her own trouble, but she is supportive of Raina.  Then a fortuitous mistake (while running an errand for her aunt) introduces Raina to a Professor Kellman, a lonely widower with a computer which he allows her to use for her matchmaking, unknowingly.  And the pairing of Raina at school with a geeky girl, Dahlia Engel, to help Raina with her school work brings a tech wizard and friend to Raina finally.

The complexity and hilarity of Raina attempting to control her matchmaking enterprise, which continues to blossom through word of mouth, while trying to make things right with Leah (including finding Leah her own partner) and keeping up her school work and resolving the trouble that caused her to leave her last school and humiliate her family will keep the reader eager to turn the page and learn what else can go wrong or perhaps right. Raina has much to worry about, including the possibility of "matchmaking malpractice" (pg. 146) but with her growing maturity and good heart, Raina has all of the best intentions and is less negligent with her actions and voice.

Playing with Matches is a fabulously unique story–formal matchmaking is definitely not a regular theme in YA–that embeds all the angst of falling in love and growing up and doing right by your family and yourself all under one cover.  I believe that the story will definitely resonate more for Jewish readers who may understand the cultural nuances of dating, dress, and relationships better than I could.  Having grown up in Toronto, I couldn't understand how the only people Raina met were Jewish, or how she happens to enter the wrong house far from home and it be the unlocked home of a Jewish man that her aunt knows, or that her sister's fiancĂ© would break off the wedding because of something inconsiderate Raina did (not murderous, just inconsiderate).  Those inexplicable questions kept me from buying wholeheartedly into the story.

But Suri Rosen can turn a phrase well and get me laughing with the antics of her characters, who are definitely larger than life, and undoubtedly has a plethora of stories to tell if Playing with Matches is any indication of the experiences with which she is well versed. I look forward to reading more from this author (though I hope she will recognize that not all her readers are Jewish and may need a bit more background to understand the full story).

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