Well, WHAT a dear darling book this was. The Intimacy Experiment is the second Rosie Danan book I’ve read, and it is far more the book of my heart than the first one (for reasons I’ll get into ). Both books feature protagonists who are sex workers, which kind of rules? Apart from Aya de Leon’s romantic suspense series, of which I have read the first two, and A Gentleman Undone by Cecilia Grant, I don’t know that I’ve ever read a romance novel with a sex worker protagonist. So yay for that!
Naomi Grant has built her life around going against the grain. After the sex-positive start-up she cofounded becomes an international sensation, she wants to extend her educational platform to live lecturing. Unfortunately, despite her long list of qualifications, higher ed won’t hire her.
Ethan Cohen has recently received two honors: LA Mag nominated him as one of the city’s hottest bachelors and he became rabbi of his own synagogue. Low on both funds and congregants, the executive board of Ethan’s new shul hired him with the hopes that his nontraditional background will attract more millennials to the faith. They’ve given him three months to turn things around or else they’ll close the doors of his synagogue for good.
Naomi and Ethan join forces to host a buzzy seminar series on Modern Intimacy, the perfect solution to their problems–until they discover a new one–their growing attraction to each other. They’ve built the syllabus for love’s latest experiment, but neither of them expected they’d be the ones putting it to the test.
To nobody’s surprise, I melted like an M&M for this angry woman / soft man pairing. Ethan is a very gentle soul who just wants to achieve his goal of building a warm, inclusive congregation, and Naomi has spent years hardening her heart against other people in the certain knowledge that to do otherwise would be to allow herself to be hurt. (Again.) Their forced intimacy is of the subtype “shared project,” one of my very favorite subtypes, as it offers them the opportunity to get to know each other in a low-pressure way as they each slowly realize the other person is their ideal partner. And Danan doesn’t slack on the specifics of the project; this book is not exactly People with Jobs, but it’s at least People with Jobs-adjacent. I loved seeing Ethan coming up with ideas for his synagogue and Naomi for her seminar; to the point that I kept wishing those things were real, just so people who needed them could have access.
(My notes for the above paragraph said “prickly heroine / soft hero = GOOD”.)
The Intimacy Experiment also deeply explores the two characters’ relationship to their faith. Ethan is, of course, a rabbi, and Naomi grew up Jewish but has fallen away from the faith in adulthood. In this book, both of them are exploring their relationship not just to Judaism but to the structures of organized religion. Though Ethan knows much more clearly than Naomi what he wants from Judaism, both characters spend the book thinking through their core values and then working to find space for those values within their faith. Not to spend every paragraph being like I WISH THIS WERE REAL, but it did make me wish very deeply that there were some, like, Reform Catholicism that I could join up with. I don’t go to Mass regularly because I get tired of the Church’s hostility to so many things that matter to me, but I miss the rituals and the community. Anyway it felt like a huge piece of wish fulfillment to me, that these characters were given the space to embrace what they loved about Judaism within the context of their faith and on the terms of their faith.
As was the case in The Roommate, Danan never shames her protagonists for their careers. Naomi is comfortable with her work and proud of being a huge part of building a sex-positive porn company, and characters who feel vocally otherwise are given a thorough narrative slap for it. At the same time, the subjects of sex and intimacy are explored in a wonderfully delicate way, in the clear knowledge that these are two things that can be related, but don’t have to be related every time for every person. I loved seeing this play out in the sex and makeout scenes between Ethan and Naomi, where clearly she knows that sex with Ethan would be massively intimate, in a way that sex in porn movies has never been for her.
The emotional content of The Intimacy Experiment is so strong that it feels almost not worthwhile to gripe about minor things. There’s a bit too much faffing about on why Ethan and Naomi can’t date each other, none of which felt remotely convincing, although it did contribute to some fun moments, and I wanted them to just stop making weird excuses and date already. (Or else, of course, find better excuses.) But this is a minor gripe in what overall is an absolute doll of a book.
Note: I received this book from the publisher for review consideration. This has not impacted the contents of my review.