Danan, Rosie. The Intimacy Experiment. Berkley, 2021. ISBN 978-0593101629 336 pp. $16
Best romance I’ve read this year (so far). Author Rosie Danan tackles dating, consent, slut shaming and Judaism in this sexy novel about Naomi Grant, a sex worker and former porn star looking for a venue for complement her online and streaming site Shameless with live and lively lectures on sex, intimacy, dating and pleasure. Naomi connects at a conference for educators with Ethan Cohen, a hot young rabbi looking for a way to reinvigorate continuing education and increase membership at his first congregational pulpit. With not much to lose, the unlikely duo contrive a seven session series to cover the gamit of meeting someone to date to how to end things and survive a breakup. With less that a dozen folks at the first session, and so few attending a speed dating event that Ethan and Naomi just have to pitch in, subsequent sessions increase in attendance exponentially… and so does the discomfort of most of the synagogue’s Board members.
Fiesty Naomi and compassionate Ethan have instant attraction, and are beautiful people, but they are also refreshing flawed, aware of their flaws, and disclose their flaws. Naomi struggles with residual trauma from high school, having reinvented herself after nude photos meant for her boyfriend go viral; Ethan struggles to connect to his remaining family and to maintain the respect of his board (and keep his job). Their characterizations are complex, their backgrounds pretty different, and yet… this is a OTP if ever there was one.
As a Jew by choice, I crave to read romance with Jewish themes, and such books are few and far between. I’d like to think I completely “got it” from the occasional Hebrew phrase to the culture of practice to the lessons from Torah and Talmud that Ethan and Naomi share. The Intimacy Experiment does not come off as a religious story, although faith plays a strong role, and thus should not alienate non-Jewish readers.
There is a lot of talk about sex, but really only one steamy scene (and it’s totally hot, and tempered with uncertainty and honesty). Danan could have gone into more specific detail about how the Jewish tradition incorporates the values of consent and mutual pleasure in sexual relationships, especially as Ethan is continuously trying to justify the course, but maybe because it’s so couched in marriage and procreation.
The book (almost!) concludes with the best self-care, post-breakup advice, ever, because some unfortunate protests lead to Naomi delivering her final class to students at her former high school, instead of the participants at Beth Elohim. But, if there is no HEA or HFN ending, it’s not a romance, right?
My review is not doing justice to the clever writing, bravery and honesty of Rosie Danan; her skillful plotting so that Ethan and Naomi speed through the set topics of the lectures as they apply them in real life; the authentic voice of her characters; the humor; the attention to every detail. I can’t wait to see what synagogue is going to pick this for book club; I volunteer as tribute to lead it.
I read #TheIntimacyExperiment on #NetGalley the same week it came in on hold for me in OverDrive at my library… and read it AGAIN, because it was just that good.