In our new column Bookworm Beat, read about our favorite books written by women and nonbinary authors.
Playing with Matches cover courtesy of Touchstone.
"It wouldn't be a story about a 22-year-old if she didn't feel happy, free, confused, and lonely at the same time," says Hannah Orenstein about her debut novel, Playing with Matches.
The book introduces readers to Sasha Goldberg, a recent NYU graduate who has everything together until she loses out on her dream job and is put in the uncomfortable position of using a family secret to land a gig at an elite matchmaking agency. As she tries to juggle a slew of dating dysfunctional clients all in search of "the one", Sasha's relationship with her perfect-on-paper boyfriend also starts to fall apart and new sparks with a man that is compelling but strictly off limits begin to kindle.
The success of the book will come as no surprise to anyone familiar with Orenstein's CV. She started her writing career in college as a dating columnist for her college newspaper. This was an interest she later channeled into her own work at a matchmaking agency. It is a job Orenstein describes as having been both intense and exhilarating. "I was 21 and my most formative romantic experience at that point was getting dumped at a grocery store," she says. "Meanwhile, my clients were mostly in their 30s, 40s, and 50s, and they were looking for very serious relationships. I was way in over my head."
However, the experience inspired a short story she wrote for a creative workshop her last semester of college. The story differed greatly from Playing with Matches, Orenstein says, but the positive responses encouraged her to continue writing that summer alongside her post-undergraduate job search. "Once I hit the 50-page mark, I felt like, Whoa, I can actually make this work," Orenstein adds. "I felt like I had invested enough effort that it would be a shame not to see the project through."
She did not let it go, even after landing a full-time position. After completing the draft and many rounds of editing, Orenstein began shopping the book with success. "I signed with my agent more than a year after I graduated," she says, "and the book came out two years later. Publishing is a long process!"
Photo Credit: Elyssa Maxx Goodman
When she is not involved in the publishing sphere, Orenstein works in a realm that is arguably just as complicated: the world of dating. She is the Dating Editor at Elite Daily, a job as fascinating as the title suggests. "It's a privilege to read dating advice all day and call it work," Orenstein says. But what has she learned about coupling up from this role?
"I really believe that dating is a numbers game," Orenstein shares. "The more people you go out with, the more likely you are to meet someone you click with." One concept she does not buy into is that there is only one person in the world for everyone. "I think there are a dozens or even hundreds of people out there that we could each be very happy with," she says. "And from the perspective of a person who writes fiction, it's way more fun to imagine a variety of possibilities. Think about all the love triangles you could write!"
If fiction does not quite meet your fix for love, Orenstein is open to the dating app route and suggests trying Hinge. "I think they have a great user base and the design of the app forces people to be a little bit more intentional about dating," she says.
The tone Orenstein uses to speak about love is the same sort of attitude readers can expect when they enter the world of Sasha and friends in Playing with Matches. As much as the characters are hilarious, they are also realistic representations of flailing college graduates. "I was very much aware that the first summer out of college is a confusing rollercoaster ride, and I wanted to convey that clearly in the book," Orenstein says. This idea carries the novel through to its conclusion. "Ultimately," she adds, "I wanted an ending that signified that Sasha will be okay, even if her life isn't neatly tied up in a bow by the end of the book. That felt more authentic to me than an ending that fixes every concern Sasha has. In real life, we don't wind up with all the answers."
We certainly do not, but knowing others often feel the same is comforting, even if these others happen to be fictitious.
Following a summer rich in books being published from many women authors, Orenstein is excited about the future for female writers. "I love that rom-coms are coming back into fashion," she says. Perhaps now with her book successfully published, Orenstein herself can finally catch up on her reading list. "I have a stack of books three feet high on my desk right now that I'm dying to get through."
One thing, however, is for certain. Orenstein will definitely be reading any notes she gets about the book (which I personally hope will inspire her to begin work on a second). "Everyone wants their experiences to be seen, heard, and validated," she says. "Whenever I get messages from readers telling me that Playing with Matches helped them through a breakup or a rough patch at work, I feel like I've done my job right."