There’s an Impactful Tale Buried Within Emma Richler's 'Be My Wolff'

by Jordan Blum

9 March 2017

Richler’s details can be drearily extraneous and erudite, yet they also demonstrate how dedicated and well-researched she is in regards to her characters and the world in which they live.
 
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Be My Wolff

Emma Richler

(Knopf)
US: Feb 2017

With her first two works—2002’s Sister Crazy and 2005’s Feed My Dear Dogs—English novelist Emma Richler established herself as an eloquent, thorough, and striving writer; she also revealed her fondness for focusing on family drama, as both texts revolve around the fictional Weiss household. Her latest saga, Be My Wolff, maintains both traditions (albeit through a new lineage), yet as graceful, robust, and emotional as it is at times, it’s ultimately bogged down by an overabundance of mostly inconsequential deviations and details, as well as a lack of central narrative progression and conflict. As a result, it’s a tedious journey filled with boring ancillary accounts and repetitious character development, both of which yield stagnancy in its main story.

On paper, the plot of Be My Wolff sounds very absorbing and original:

Zachariah and Rachel Wolff are brother and sister. Well, not exactly. They are star-crossed lovers. Well, not exactly. Rachel is the cherished daughter born to a Russian family living in London, and Zachariah is her parents’ adopted son, who arrived from the orphanage with one sweater, a head of rambunctious curls, and a dexterous set of fists… [a]s children, they were as close as two people could be. But when they crossed this forbidden line, there was no going back. Now, as an adult, coping with Zach’s estrangement from their formidable father, Rachel is determined to invent a family history for her beloved. And so the novel cartwheels through Zach’s imagined ancestry—from a tavern-educated boxer in Dickensian times to a Hussar at the Battle of Borodino during the Napoleonic Wars. All the while, Zach and Rachel’s troubles in the present are building to a new point of no return.

Filled with art and science, fairy tales and folk songs, tsars and foundlings, epic battles in the prize ring and on the Eastern Front, Be My Wolff is a novel of astonishing range and imagination: a love story, an exuberant adventure through time and place, a tale of our most unbreakable bonds.

Sadly, the actual contents are much less dramatic and compelling. For one thing, the “troubles in the present” take too long to reach a boiling point (and never fully do, to be honest), while the various shifts in time and presentation, despite deserving some inherent acclaim for being ambitious and varied, are ultimately more monotonous and distracting than they are invigorating and essential.

The main “imagined ancestry” relates to Rachel reviving stories and biographies she and Zach wrote about a boxer named Sam the Russian as children. Granted, these chapters serve as symbolic ideas about Zach—as “the more she learned about her new brother Zachariah, the more Sam sprang alive, a figure of Russian fairy tale… [a]nd the more alive Sam became, the quicker she forgot he was Zach”—but they, coupled with similar historical accounts, are far too frequent and dull to be worthwhile. Roughly half of the book is given to these recollections, so they’re made even more intolerable because they prevent Richler from developing the modern story more. You’ll devote an excessive amount of time reading passages like “Sam the Russian and Jonah the Needle take pride in the restoration of Rattus norvegicus, most especially in the manner in which they adapt a method of Attracting Rats and Ensuring their Destruction into a method of Attracting Rats and Ensuring their Restoration” and wish she would get back to her protagonists. After a while, it becomes irritating.

When Richler does return to Zach and Rachel, she barely gives them anything of significance and assortment to do. Most of their arc consists of the following: Zach leaves Rachel, goes to training, walks around the city, and returns home; Rachel writes, contemplates the friction between the two of them and their father, Lev, and reflects on her admiration for Zach to the point of obsession. Obviously, it’s important to show how much the pair loves one other, but there are only so many times you can tolerate reading about how he’s her “fighting man” and “lone wolf” whose every movement and part (including “his internal jugular vein playing a rhythmic sound against her cheek” and “a tiny daub of mayonnaise on his shadowy jaw, darkened already by midday beard”) fills her with elation.

As for the tension between Rachel, Zach, and Lev, it’s certainly a palpable conflict in theory, but it never reaches its potential. At the risk of spoiling certain developments, I’ll stop it there except to note one inherent reason: Rachel and Zach spend a lot of time expressing how much they adore each other and couldn’t bear to be apart—but they aren’t apart. They’re very much entwined in each other emotionally, mentally, and physically (since they live together), so while it’s understandable that they wish Lev would accept their bond, they’ve already drawn a line in the sand about maintaining it. There’s no reason why they can’t stay together despite Lev’s disapproval, so there isn’t much at stake from the start.

Although it may sound contradictory, some of these issues also yield some of the author’s biggest strengths. Yes, Richler’s details can be drearily extraneous and erudite, yet they also demonstrate how dedicated and well-researched she is in regards to her characters and the world in which they live. Like many other writers (perhaps most famously, Tolkien), she even includes a thorough map and glossary to account for every place, phrase, and person that comes into play. Likewise, she offers several scenes during the couple’s childhood (and thus, blossoming relationship) that pack the charming innocence and hope of, say, Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom. Again, Richler harbors too much on their love as adults, but she does a great job building and justifying it along the way. Because of this, the actions and outcomes during the final fourth really hit hard.

There’s an impactful and endearing tale buried within Be My Wolff, but it barely rises to the surface because Richler focuses too much on secondary situations and repetitious descriptions. As a result, not enough happens with and to these characters to warrant its length and keep readers invested throughout. There are some great moments scattered around, but they’re too infrequent to excuse the excessive padding around them. Richler is certainly a very talented writer on a technical and creative level, though, so she could very easily rectify these problems in the future and create something that lives up to its potential next time.

Be My Wolff

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