To Touch The Light by E.M. Lindsey. 2019.
This romance by a new-to-me author really caught me off guard. There were so many reasons that it might not work for me, that I was genuinely surprised when it did. The writing is beautiful, evocative, so in the moment, and feels very rooted in the real. It took a rather bleak situation–two characters who are alienated and lonely, the slog of a workplace that doesn’t honor their humanity, the substantial precarity of one of the MCs–and it managed to have me feeling hopeful, pretty much from the start, because of the ways the characters feel deeply drawn, full and complex, and reaching for hope and connection, from the start.
I am always hungry for Chanukah romances, and perhaps especially picky about them. This one approaches the holiday a bit sideways, with a gentile chef who wants to make the holidays more inclusive at the resort where he works because he has a number of staff who are Jewish, so he pushes his boss into letting him do a Chanukah feast on the second night of the holiday, despite her initial anti-Semitic response. That’s where the story begins, but as it unfolds, we see him deeply investing in trying to pull it off, and struggling with his lack of first hand knowledge, partnering with Jewish folks in the local community, and most importantly, we learn that his love interest in Jewish. That’s when his investment in Chanukah shifts, from something a bit abstract to something he wants to do to honor the identity of this man he’s falling for. And we get to see the impact of these efforts, the yearning that Vitya has to celebrate Chanukah more fully.
This wasn’t as much a foodie romance as I had been hoping for, but I wasn’t super disappointed by it; it felt like it was trying to do a lot, and I was okay with more minimal food descriptions. Still, it did feel like there was a bit of a missed opportunity; I would have liked to have descriptions of latkes, at least. There were some lovely details about making challah, though.
This book wouldn’t work without Vitya’s POV, which felt carefully drawn to me as a reader. I cannot speak for the Russian immigrant representation, and I know non-ownvoices authors often get that very wrong. His relationship with his Judaism rung true for me as a Jewish reader. Vitya is experiencing a great deal of precarity in the story; he is increasingly more disabled (he is losing his vision), he is living in poverty doing a job he hates where he is constantly abused by his coworkers, he feels unable to change his situation because he is an undocumented immigrant who was exiled by his country for his politics and whose English speaking is limited. The power in the relationship is deeply stacked against him, and I was really surprised to find myself feeling relatively okay with his relationship with his boss. Without feeling so clear that it was wanted, that he saw it as something he deeply desired and was finally getting to have, which only came with his POV, I cannot imagine being on board with it.
Storywise, I honestly wish that things were not so intensely precarious for Vitya in terms of work, housing, and survival. I would be more comfortable with a story that didn’t start a romantic relationship from that place, because I know what it’s like to exist in precarity of that sort and consent is really difficult to create from that place. I also wish that he was less alienated, that help for his situation came from a wider support system than his boss who was also his new lover. It makes for such a big power differential. It helped, some, that Mario also has vulnerabilities in the relationship, and that he recognizes the power position he has and the ways that his wanting to help could feel bad to Vitya, that he shouldn’t just sweep in and fix everything. I did like the fact that in the end it was more about connecting him with community, activating a social network of folks who could help with different pieces of the things he was struggling with. It felt somewhat handwavy that everything was all addressed by the timeframe set for the epilogue, when I know things are way more complex and fraught, especially when it comes to immigration issues.
I was troubled by how much Vitya was being harassed at work and how it felt like Mario didn’t really do much to try to change the workplace environment as a boss (though not the big boss), which felt incredibly toxic. I was glad when he did intervene, but it didn’t feel like enough, to me. That’s one of the only things that had me questioning whether I was really rooting for them as a couple. I gathered from the story that some of this was about Mario’s own issues as a trans man in the workplace, but that didn’t make it feel okay to me.
I generally liked the trans representation. Mario is a trans man and the way that his transness was drawn felt real to me, his instinctive triggers around nakedness, his slowly unlearning long habits of managing dysphoria and reclaiming his body, his deep alienation and struggles at work. I thought the storytelling around his transness was a bit too explainy, too focused on making sure cis readers were on board. But honestly, compared to a lot of the infodumps I’ve seen, I was mostly okay with it, as a trans masc reader. I’m not a trans man, and cannot speak to the specificities of Latinx trans representation as a white reader, but the trans rep worked pretty well for me.
There are several sex scenes and they are predominantly both carefully drawn when it came to the trans rep and quite hot, which is honestly rare to find in trans romance. I appreciated that any concerns about his gay love interest being into him as a trans man were coming from Mario and quickly put to rest as Vitya was so clearly into him as a person and wanted him both romantically and sexually with no question at all. I love it when I get to read trans romance that doesn’t incude an acceptance arc, and this doesn’t include one. Instead, they primarily deal with conflicts that are situational and external, which I appreciated.
Vitya is losing his eyesight and doesn’t have access to health insurance to figure out why or get treatment for it. I was concerned as it’s rare that I find respectful disability rep in a book by a new to me author that wasn’t specifically recommended to me by a disabled friend. I generally found this representation to be respecful, though I cannot speak to it’s accuracy as while I’m visually impaired, it’s not as disabling for me right now as it is for Vitya in the story. I liked the way Mario treated him with respect around being disabled, and Vitya’s relationship to his low vision felt real to me.
The characters were clearly pining for each other for a long time, each thinking they couldn’t possibly have a relationship with the other, and so when they finally got together, I mostly didn’t mind how fast it went. I would have liked a bit more breathing room, a bit more detail around their romantic attraction, a few more moments to sit in the swooniness of how they felt about each other, but it worked alright for me, wasn’t as much of a whirlwind as I’ve seen in some holiday romances.
Overall, I enjoyed this deeply drawn complex Chanukah romance novella, and am glad to have read this book. I’m interested in exploring this author’s backlist, and this series in particular, as I enjoy both her writing style and the depth of characterization in this book. I’m especially interested in reading her books with Deaf characters as it’s very hard to find Deaf representation that’s ownvoices.
- Latinx gay trans man MC
- Immigrant Jewish white gay man MC with low vision
- Bisexual chronically ill Jewish Deaf white woman author.
Content Warnings (in white, highlight to read)
Discussion of being exiled. Discussion of trans antagonism. Workplace ableist harassment. References to workplace trans antagonist harassment in the past. Anti-semitic comment in the workplace. Boss/employee relationship. Sex on the page.
- Source of the book: Borrowed from Kindle Unlimited
- I haven’t had any contact with the author.
- All links to Amazon will be affiliate ones. If you buy through those links, I will make a small amount of money on that sale (which I plan to use to buy more books to review), but it will not add any to the cost of your product. It comes out of the company’s profits.
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