Disclosure: E.M. Ben Shaul is a childhood friend who just published her first novel, which makes me feel a bit guilty, because I’m about to write an “It’s OK” rather than a glowing “Loved it” review.
Daniel Perez (Dani for short) a secular Israeli software engineer, is introduced to Avraham Levine (Avi for short), an Orthodox Jew and sign language interpreter, by a mutual friend. Flying Without a Net is the story of their growing relationship and an exploration of one path to reconcile being gay AND remaining a frum or Torah observant Jew.
Perhaps I’ve been reading too much LGBTQ+ fiction recently, but I found Flying Without a Net a bit too predictable. Avi and Dani have more substance than paper dolls moving through the stereotypical moves of a “coming out” novel, but they don’t read or feel like fully fleshed out people either. While there are some nice touches, the growth of their relationship is too episodic and pat for my taste. They do wrestle with certain complications to their budding romance from Avi’s religious background, but it’s a foregone conclusion that they will find a path to mutual satisfaction.
A key part of the story is that Avi’s sister happens to be deaf. E.M. Ben Shaul has a deft touch with making that just a fact and not an Issue, though at the expense of an info-dump or two. Similarly, the question of consent is at the forefront of the story, and while crucial, how it is handled is one of the things that are almost too good to be believed for real people.
If you know Jewish Boston at all, you will recognize many of the places named, but I don’t know how well the descriptions will resonate to those who don’t know the area. Similarly, E.M. Ben Shaul had a difficult challenge in deciding how much to explain the Yiddish and Hebrew vocabulary woven through the story and various Jewish customs. Despite the glossary at the end, I don’t know how appealing this book with be for anyone without previous acquaintance to the Frum/Dati world – there are just too many unfamiliar terms to keep up with.
There’s a value to seeing yourself in books and using them to help build and understand your identity. While I found Flying Without A Net a reasonable debut novel with plenty of room for the author to improve, as a long-married heterosexual, I am not the true target audience. I hope Flying Without A Net finds its way into the hands of young adults (and even older adults) who are questioning their identity and seeking potential role models of how to be true to all their selves. I think they will find the story of Dani and Avi more compelling than I did.