Summary: No Vacancy by Tziporah Cohen
In No Vacancy, Miriam Brockman’s family — who are Jewish — has just moved into a motel they bought in upstate New York. On top of the change from city to small town, Miriam has to work with her parents and uncle (who comes to help) to renovate the motel. Her parents are also struggling because the motel is in poor financial state, contrary to what the sellers had initially told them. This jeopardizes their plan to renovate and then sell the motel so they can buy a home.
Next door to the hotel is a diner owned by a Catholic elderly couple, whose granddaughter, Kate, befriends Miriam. Miriam also begins working at the diner, peeling grapes for grape pie. In a bid to help draw customers to the motel, both girls create the illusion of a Virgin Mary apparition in a local abandoned drive-in. Their plan works, and customers start flooding the motel, but Miriam can’t shake the guilt, even as she explores other questions about religion and disability.
Miriam is a deeply introspective character and has lots of questions about religion and the lack of tolerance she feels her mother exhibits towards Catholics. The book’s premise is also unique. I don’t think I’ve read anything about religious apparitions and the cognitive bias that accounts for this illusory effect in some people. This is also a summer story, which is always fun, and there’s a lot of hard work involved in restoring the motel to some kind of glory. It was refreshing that Miriam was so hardworking, both at the diner and the motel.
There’s a lot of discourse about religion and how different people in the same religion may practice differently. Miriam’s uncle Mordy is a “stricter” Jew than her parents. He won’t drive on the Sabbath or eat at a non-kosher restaurant. Even though he likes Maria, the motel’s housekeeper who is Catholic, he sticks by his decision to only date and marry someone who shares his religious convictions. I enjoyed learning about the root of Miriam’s mother’s feelings about Catholics, and even though both girls carry on a lie for a while, I liked how the author resolves the situation in the end. Finally, I really liked Anton, a disabled boy whose mother brings him to see the apparition for healing. He gives readers an excellent education in how to treat people with disabilities.
This book is a sort-of slice-of-life, voice-driven novel. It progressed slowly in the beginning, and with all the pointed discussions and commentary, I felt like the author’s mission was “preaching” religious tolerance. Most middle-grade books have a message, but this felt really preachy to me.
Overall: No Vacancy by Tziporah Cohen
Tziporah Cohen’s debut novel is a unique middle-grade book set in summer. Featuring a Jewish protagonist, No Vacancy is an exploration of religion, friendship, and discrimination. If you enjoy slice-of-life stories with motels, kids working, warm family dynamics, and eccentric characters, you’ll enjoy this one.
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More Books Like No Vacancy
- Shouting at the Rain by Lynda Mullaly Hunt
- Summer at Meadow Wood by Amy Rebecca Tan
- What Happens Next by Claire Swinarski
Have you read this book or any other middle-grade books set in motels? I’d love your recommendations! Want more books by Jewish about Jewish kids? Here’s a list of 18.