Be My Wolff by Emma RichlerBe My Wolff by Emma Richler

Be My Wolff

byEmma Richler

Hardcover | February 14, 2017

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Widely heralded for her bestselling first novel (Feed My Dear Dogs) and award-winning stories (Sister Crazy, also nominated for the Orange Prize), Emma Richler finally returns with a dazzling major novel with the power of A.S. Byatt's Possession, the wit and wonder of Peter Carey's Oscar and Lucinda and Kate Atkinson's Life After Life--about a sister and her adopted brother with a one-of-a-kind connection: a profoundly moving, original love story about the unbreakable ties that bind, and the choices we make or create for ourselves.


Zachariah and Rachel are brother and sister. Well, not exactly. They are star-crossed lovers. Well, not exactly. Rachel is the cherished daughter of a Russian family living in London--the richly imagined, mysterious Wolffs; Zach is her parents' adopted son who arrived from the orphanage with one sweater, a head of curls and a dexterous set of fists. As children, they became as close as two people can be. But when they crossed a forbidden line, there was no going back. Now, as an adult, coping with their father's furious rebuttal of Zach, Rachel sets herself the task of inventing a family history for her beloved. And so she brings to life his imagined ancestry--from a tavern-educated boxer in Dickensian times, to a Hussar at the Battle of Borodino during the Napoleonic Wars--even as their troubles in present-day Camden Town build to yet another point of no return. Cartwheeling through history, filled with art and science, fairy tales and folk songs, tsars and foundlings, epic battles in the prize ring and on the Eastern Front, and characters that take over our hearts, Be My Wolff is riveting--wondrous, funny and tragic and of astonishing imagination and beauty.
EMMA RICHLER is the author of Sister Crazy and Feed My Dear Dogs. Brought up in England and in Canada, she attended university in Canada and France and theatre school in New York. She lives in London.
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Title:Be My WolffFormat:HardcoverDimensions:432 pages, 9.55 × 6.64 × 1.35 inPublished:February 14, 2017Publisher:Knopf CanadaLanguage:English

The following ISBNs are associated with this title:

ISBN - 10:0345810724

ISBN - 13:9780345810724

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Reviews

Rated 4 out of 5 by from A Top Read For 2017 This was a really fascinating read for me, it's characters and storyline was interesting and captivating. A different type of novel than what I would normally read but i would definitely recommend it.
Date published: 2017-07-18

Read from the Book

“Marry me, Rachel.” “Not yet.” “Tomorrow, Rachel. Marry me.” “Maybe tomorrow.” “There is no common blood between us. Say it,” pleads Zachariah. “There is no common blood between us,” murmurs Rachel. “I am not your brother.” “I know.” He traces her face with his swollen fingers, across the brow bones and down the zygomatics, and along the jaw from earlobe to chin, sweeping away the brine as he goes. “I am your Wolff,” she replies. Let the day begin.   ·             Zachariah crams his pockets, straps on a watch, skips to the loo for a splash. “Skip to the loo, my DAR-ling!” sings Rachel, stroking the bed where Zach lay, moving into that place. I smell the smell of a Russian soul. If she were a dog, she would see the shape of the smell he has left in this imprint on the sheets, she could make an olfactory portrait of the man in his absence, yes. If she were a dog with a twentyfold amount of pri­mary receptors and an ability to detect an odour at concentrations one hundred times smaller than man’s, she could see him in scent. A dog can distinguish between molecules of smell that have mirror symme­try, virtually identical, but drastically different, such as caraway and peppermint. In Rachel’s dreams, Zachariah is sometimes a dog. Papa says this con­fusion is a well-known feature of sleep and dreaming, because there is a disconnection of brain hemispheres in the dormant callosus, between the hemisphere for recognition of speech and the hemisphere for recog­nition of faces. Rachel dreams Zachariah in various shapes—dog, wolf, bird, boy—and then wakes to the man, seeing him always in infinite detail, taking note this morning, for instance, as he exits the bathroom, of the overnight change in hue round his swollen sparkler, the emer­gence into lighter shades of blue and yellow, Belcher blue and yellow. Don’t fight today. “Whatever happened?” she asks. “The other day? You never said. Between you and Sandbags Shaw?” “Sandbag, Rach. It’s Sandbag.” “Sandbag, then.” “Got to fly, Rach! Tell you later.” “You won’t.” “It was nothing,” he tells her. “A barney, a mere scrap. Man’s an idiot. Hit him in the head, there’s an echo! Blow in one ear, snuff a candle out the other end! Empty garret. With breezes blowing through it.” Sandbag Shaw. Rachel mistakes the name accidentally-on-purpose, because it irks her, hurts to utter. Shaw is an ogre in the forest.   Professionally, Wolff and Shaw fought twice and stand at 1–1, Zach losing the first, but winning the return, the title fight. It was Zach’s Pyr­rhic victory, Rachel decries, because of the damage done that freezing January night when the two men fought at light welter on the undercard of a name fighter who had drawn a big crowd. Theirs, however, was the battle of distinction and Zach became a name thereafter, for his fine win and gameness. Zach fought again too soon, defended his title too soon while still carrying the pain he would not own to of the orbital fracture Shaw inflicted in that famous return, a fracture entailing a legacy of recurring headache and double vision Zach cannot shake. Yet, in the usual hype of the pre-fight medical, Wolff was declared in prime condi­tion for the bout that would prove to be his last, against a sharp Geor­gian bruiser named Kubriashvili. The Georgian was a walk-in fighter who punched at crazy angles, had a thunderous left hook and a brazen right-hand lead and was known not to be above raking the eyes, and hitting on the break and other indelica­cies. Moments before the bell to end the third round, Kubriashvili blind­sided the ref to butt out of a clinch, using his head, or “third fist” as it is sometimes known, the hardest part of the body, to open a spectacular cut on Zach’s cheekbone, those sculpted zygomatics leaving him more than usually prone to cuts. In the following round, as Zach gaped for air, pushing at his mouthpiece in a tell-tale sign of exhaustion, his antago­nist pounced, breaking his jaw, gashing the tongue and catching Zach with an uppercut as he fell, adding a scything blow to the ear to help him on his way to the floor, where he landed with sickening finality, one leg twitching. Zach had a clot removed and his licence also. It was not safe for him to fight ever again. The ring is not safe, it’s a dangerous place! So what happens, Rachel wonders, when Zach sees Shaw? When the ogre comes at him out of the forest? What does he see that so unhinges him? What are the dynam­ics of rage, Papa? Tell me. —Rachel. Explain reflection. —A reflection is a mathematical concept, not a formula, not a shape. It’s a transformation. —Expound. —We are not bilaterally symmetric. Not invariant in reflection. —Good, Rachel. Perhaps, thinks Rachel, when Wolff and Shaw exchange glances at Izzy’s gym in Clerkenwell, they see into a glass, sharing a kind of mirror symmetry, each reflecting loss. Loss and fate. Sandbag feels a roiling fury because of that epic fight he lost in his prime, perhaps his one shot at the title, a bout after which he is not ever the same, eternally outclassed. And Zach sees in Shaw the bruiser he beat in such style he lost his head and gambled his title too soon, propelled like Stephenson’s Rocket into the ring with Kubriashvili to contest a title fight he barely survives. “Muzhik!” Zach had called himself as she sat in his hospital room in those long days of recovery. “Had they not passed me fit!” he mused. “If I had ducked, if I had danced, if I had hit through the target. If I had been fully fit. If I had not been so—” “Bloody-minded?” she teased. “Hot? Impetuous?” “All of that,” he smiled. “All of that.” “Rubbish!” Rachel countered. “I mean, walker! As you love to say. Stuff and nonsense! You are a fighter,” she added. “Were a fighter. Noth­ing you could do,” she insisted, offering consolation now that she is cer­tain he will not ever be allowed to fight again. One of Nicky’s favourite sayings came to mind, though she did not voice it, words of the old soldier, his special wisdom. “What is the point of ducking?” says the old soldier to the young soldier. “Each shot has a man’s name on it anyway!” he laughs. “Nothing you can do.”    Zach pats his pockets in the bedroom doorway: keys, cash, mobile, yes. “Bashing off now, be right back,” he says, frowning with decision. “And the Shaw thing—I’ll tell you later, Rach. OK? Full particulars, no holds barred!” “You’re running away!” she accuses. “I’m not! I’m late, that’s all. I need you to call the rat man. Tell him I’ll be a few minutes late. OK? Left the number on the kitchen table.” “Come here for a moment,” says Rachel, and Zach kneels by the bed. “Does it hurt?” she asks, brushing his brow. “You don’t answer me.” “It’s all your fault,” Zach smiles. “The scrap with Shaw. You and your rats. That essay you read to me. The ratcatcher in New York City.” “Joseph Mitchell? The Rats on the Waterfront.” “Yeah. The catcher and his peanut butter sarnie. What he discovered.” “The efficacy of peanut butter in attracting rats. But I don’t—” “I called Shaw a rat,” Zach confesses, hangdog. “That’s all? You fought over that? Can it be so silly?” “Stupid,” he concedes. “Didn’t you tell me about a fighter who won a round without ever throwing a punch? In the forties?” “Willie Pep! Willie Pep, Will o’ the Wisp. Great featherweight. Yeah.” “He won on skill, yes? Not a single blow thrown. I like that story,” insists Rachel. “Very much.” “Well, he’s also famous for one of the dirtiest fights in history. OK?” “I still like it,” she says, and slips her hands up his sleeves, clasping him gently by the forearms—brachioradialis—forearms her fingers can-not quite encompass. “Makes one think, doesn’t it? Winning a round without a blow. Without a blow, Wolff!” “Marry me,” Zach murmurs, dropping chin to chest. “We are married. We’ve always been married. Every day, we marry,” she says quietly. “Can’t you see?”

Bookclub Guide

1. Early in the novel, readers are told that “for Rachel Wolff . . . there are patterns everywhere” (4), and Rachel’s father teaches her that patterns are clues. What are some of the patterns that Rachel observes? And what other patterns or motifs emerge throughout the novel? Do you think they serve as clues of some kind? Discuss. 2. A frequent refrain in the Wolff family is “everyone has a part and a destiny” (39). Does the book ultimately support or overturn the notion of fate? What does Lev believe about predictability and determinism, for instance? Do the lives of the characters seem to be shaped more by the characters’ choices or by forces beyond their control? Explain. 3. What is the game of “strange attractors” that Rachel plays with Zachariah and later with Aubry? How might Rachel and Zachariah fit into this game of strange attractors themselves? 4. Explore the fairy tales and folk tales presented in the novel. What characteristics do these stories share? What common characters and themes appear throughout? How do these stories treat the subjects of vice and virtue? What seems to be the purpose of the stories? Could the story of Rachel and Zachariah be considered a fairy tale or a folk tale? Why or why not? 5. What is a “native place”? Does the book answer the question of how one’s native place is determined? What does Katya mean when she realizes that the people in the procession in St. Petersburg might be able to tell “how one can never truly leave” and “never quite return” (227)? What is Rachel’s native place? 6. Explore the theme of grief. What do the characters mourn and how do they cope with their grief? Do they grieve in the same way(s)? Do any of the characters seem to find catharsis or relief? Discuss. 7. Evaluate the theme of memory. What do the characters tend to remember and reflect upon the most? What prompts these memories? Are the memories primarily positive or negative? 8. The phrase “What have I done?” recurs throughout the novel. What do the characters regret and what causes them to come to regret their actions? Are they able to do anything to reverse what they’ve done, alter the consequences, or otherwise diminish their regret? 9. Evaluate the structure of the book. How does the arrangement and organization of the storytelling help to illuminate the novel’s key themes? Explain. 10. The novel features several sibling relationships. How are these other relationships like the one shared by Zachariah and Rachel? Compare and contrast. Considered collectively, what do these relationships reveal about the bond between siblings? 11. The novel incorporates many real-life historical figures. Who are they and why are they relevant to the overarching story of Zachariah and Rachel? What might these characters reveal about time, history, and humankind? 12. Why was Lev originally opposed to the relationship between Zachariah and Rachel? Does Lev ever change his mind and come to accept their relationship? Is there any resolution to the friction between Lev and Zachariah? 13. Explore the theme of interconnectedness. Although the word interconnectedness doesn’t appear as a subtitle until page 382 of the novel, where else is the theme of interconnectedness evident? Does the novel suggest what people and things are connected or bound by? 14. Evaluate the theme of exile. What kinds of exile are depicted in the novel, who is subjected to them, and why? What is the experience of exile like? Can you provide any examples of resolution, reunion, or homecoming following these characters’ exiles? 15. Who is responsible for Zachariah’s downfall? Would you say that it was avoidable? Why or why not? How does Rachel react? Does her reaction surprise you? Why or why not? 16. Many of the characters in the books are artists and musicians. Does the book suggest what the role or purpose of art and music might be? Explain. 17. Through Lev’s teachings and Rachel’s point of view, the book offers a glimpse into many different scientific disciplines—meteorology, physics, and anatomy, to name just a few. Do these disciplines support the notion of an orderly world or a chaotic one? What does the book seem to suggest also about humankind’s relationship to the natural world?

Editorial Reviews

“As a member of one of Canada’s most famous literary families, Emma comes by her talent honestly. . . . Rife with Dickensian overtones, the moving novel spans centuries.” —HELLO! Canada“It’s impossible not to feel the romance of the place while reading Richler’s ambitious new novel . . . [A] feat of pure invention . . . [L]ayers upon layers of characters, folktales and history to sift through. . . . [T]he tapestry Richler weaves is so vivid and full of detail.” —Leah McLaren, The Walrus“Richler is adept at layering tension and history to create moods and mindsets for her characters. Zach and Rachel’s complex, intense love for each other is the nucleus of the book, and fascinatingly rendered. Their affection is fierce and childlike in its single-mindedness, the kind of feedback loop of pure protectiveness and wonder that’s characteristic of young siblings and teenaged lovers alike. . . . In its best moments, the novel feels like an inventive examination of family, history and memory.” —Emma Healey, National Post“Be My Wolff is a captivating story, rich with European history, intercontinental travel, boxing trivia, sparkling conversation, Slavic folklore, wolf pack patterns and Russian fairy tales. A strikingly unique outing.” —Toronto Star“Be My Wolff represents a writer fully coming into her own . . . Richler has come up with a structure that allows her access to all kinds of narrative voices and historical and contemporary byways . . . all within the greater framework of a tender and affecting love story.” —Montreal Gazette“Emma Richler’s first novel in twelve years, Be My Wolff, cannot be read casually. . . . If you skim through, you will not give this tantalizing tale the justice it deserves. The detail is the novel. . . . Love—a common theme in fiction—is described in a heart-wrenchingly honest way. Richler doesn’t hold anything back. . . . The word Richler uses to describe the process of creating the novel is the same feeling you will experience reading it—‘intense.’ A few words with the author is all you need to see exactly how this book was made; it could only come to exist in such a complex and creative mind.” —Blair Mlotek, Canadian Jewish News“Erudite, sexy, richly textured and packed with delights. Like Salinger’s Glass family or Wes Anderson’s Tenenbaums, the Wolff siblings seem to crash in on the terrestrial world from some more eccentric orbit.” —Garth Risk Hallberg, author of City on Fire “[J]ewel-like bits of fable and fact are interwoven with modern-day conversations and the couple’s thoughts. . . . This is heavyweight, challenging fare from Canadian/British novelist Richler, difficult to categorize and even more difficult to shake off. . . . [S]killed literary navigators will appreciate the challenge.” —Library Journal