Be My Wolff

Be My Wolff

by Emma Richler


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Zachariah and Rachel are as star-crossed as two lovers can be. Rachel is the cherished daughter of a Russian family living in London--the artistic, mysterious Wolffs; Zach is her parents' adopted son who arrived from the orphanage with one sweater and a head full of curls and immediately stole Rachel's heart. As children, they became inseparable. But when they crossed a forbidden line, there was no going back. Now, as an adult, coping with her father's censure, Rachel decides to invent an ancestral history for her beloved: from a tavern-educated boxer in Dickensian times, to a Hussar at the Battle of Borodino during the Napoleonic Wars. Even as their real-life problems threaten to invade their imagined world, the threads of Rachel's story spin faster and faster. Filled with art and science, fairy tales and folk songs, tsars and foundlings, Be My Wolff is a wondrous, funny and tragic tale of astonishing beauty.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781101970171
Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date: 02/20/2018
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 496
Product dimensions: 5.20(w) x 7.90(h) x 1.20(d)

About the Author

EMMA RICHLER was born in London and grew up there and in Montreal. She attended university in France and trained as an actress in New York. Her previous books are Sister Crazy and Feed My Dear Dogs. She lives in London.

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

A wolf pack may vary in number from two to fifty or so, typically amounting to three or four in Europe where the lone wolf is also pre-­eminent, because prey, here, is less imposing in stature, consisting largely of hare and rodent. Bonds between wolves are uncommonly close, yet social structure is neither so rigidly hierarchical nor so immutable as man supposes, nor as man’s own, indeed. The pack is a family, and wolf society, a dynamical system; sensitive to initial conditions, changing in time. Chaotic.

“Zach? Are you awake? Wake up.”

“I’m up, I’m up,” he murmurs, his head rising and falling gently to the swell and ebb of Rachel’s lungs, her heart bleating in his ear, a sound so naked, so virgin, he squeezes her ribs, presses and releases, pulsing his fingertips there for the queer delight of it, the sensation of her fine bones yielding like greenwood, like willow, Salix caerulea—cricket bat willow—the ribs yielding and springing free at his touch. He fans out his fives to encompass her, the right wall of her cage in the singular grasp of his throbbing left hand, injured in sparring. Zachariah Wolff’s hands are bruised, but he possesses superior reach! Here, he thinks, here and in the ring, these are the highest places in all the hemispheres.

“Zachariah, Zachariah,” whispers Rachel, casting a practised eye over the back of his head and down the length of him, from the shoulder blades where his wings once grew, epochs ago, in some other guise: angel—guardian, avenging—or great vagrant bird—Daurian Jackdaw, Chimney Swift, Pacific Loon! Rachel explores his haunches and onwards, noting the marks she knows by heart, the old wounds, the stripes and lesions, and reading the new—left hand and eye—being well acquainted with all the stages of healing and finding patterns in his body, in the scoring and fretwork of the epidermis, in the eddies of hair. Rachel believes in it, the laws of pattern formation and how they are universal: whatever she sees, crystallising, a landscape of fractals, of emergence and symmetry, her world falling happily into shape where he must forge it, a pioneer of industry, sooty and scarred. For Rachel Wolff, quite simply, there are patterns everywhere, she can’t help it; she is an illustrator, naturalist, cartographer—and her eye, a kaleidoscope.

She cups his occiput, slipping through the curls, marvelling, as per usual, at the weight and grace of them, and she feels the warmth and the moisture there, the heat of sleep and dreams that has condensed and evaporated now, matting the hair at his temples, falling like dew at the roots. She marvels at his head and his hands also, his pair of fives as he calls them, according to boxiana, hands she has seen in all conditions, ruddy and swollen and blistered and broken, but still beautiful, to her, moving her always because she cannot fathom it, how a man with such curls and hands can have so much fight in him. Nothing she can do.

The morning light is breaking in, muscling in, as Zach would say, and Rachel watches it slant through the sheets of lace billowing gracefully at the open window to lash the room with brightness in a filigree design of tendrils and leaves and something like raindrops, falling across the walls in a pattern of snowflakes tumbling, and she wants to jog Zach awake so he can see it too: Look what you’re missing! Instead, she decides to do it for him, I’ll look at what you’re missing, I’ll do it for you. I’ll take the day shift, you take the night shift. Let me watch the day shift.

Rachel strokes the hair back from his ear so she can watch it a moment, another morning sight she loves, of light shining through the cartilage of his ear and exposing the skeleton of vessels there and the brilliant corpuscular flow, like the last hurrah of an autumn leaf. The ear, of course, like the leaf, comes in only a few shapes, a shape not determined only by its function, by purpose and design, but by physical causes also, this she knows, how the laws of growth and rhythm account for a strange universality of forms, sensitive and shifting and responsive to the invisible, a template, a pattern, the ghost of all things. There is a template for all things. The laws of pattern formation are universal. Leaf, snowflake, ear, she sees right through him, in a blood-red glow. Zachariah, Zachariah, my fighting man.

Wolves within the pack have close ties and play more than they fight.

“Zach, please please PLEASE wake up now please.”

“All right,” he says, not moving.

“I’ve been thinking,” she begins, tugging at his hair.

“Rachel, Rachel, I’ve been thinking—”

“Oh yes,” she says, smiling. “Sing that, Zach. Sing it.”

“Rachel, Rachel, I’ve been think-­ing WHAT a strange world—”

“No. Not strange,” corrects Rachel. “Queer.”

“WHAT a queer world THIS would be . . . ​IF the boys were all trans-­por-­ted far a-­cross the Irish Sea.”

“Such a funny song for her to sing, our Russian mama, don’t you think about that? How strange, how queer! Every bedtime. Every bedtime she was there . . .”

“And bath time,” adds Zachariah. “Long as we shared!”

“That didn’t last long, did it, Zach?”

“No,” Zach groans, shutting his eyes again. Rachel sings.

“Zach-­ariah, I’ve been think-­ing—WHAT a queer world this would be IF the girls were all trans-­por-­ted—But how Mama sang it, remember, Zach? A plaintive Katya. So unlike her. Plaintive and tender and teasing. All at once.”

“Not always unlike. With Aunt Tasha, she was often like that with Tyotya.”

“Yes, that’s true of course. Oh Zach, Tyotya must miss her so much!”

“Katya!” Zach exclaims, “Katya! Can you hear us? Do you hear us? In the end, you know, I don’t think—that is—that she hated me quite so much.”

“Don’t, Zach.”

“The fact of us, then,” he persists. “Had she known.”

“She knew,” says Rachel.

“We weren’t living together! She didn’t know!”

“Zach, how many times do I—she always knew. I keep telling you. Why do you insist on—”

“All right then!” snaps Zach. “Proves my point though, doesn’t it? If she always knew. That she didn’t hate me quite so much. As Lev does. Or the fact of us,” he adds. “In the end. And she forgave you, I believe. But Lev—”

“Please?” asks Rachel. “Stop now. Don’t say ‘Lev.’ No Lev this morning.”

“OK. Wait though! Something else. Yesterday, I was drinking straight from the carton. Of juice. Bloody thirsty. And I suddenly saw him—Lev—catching me one afternoon when just home from school, all sweaty from school and swigging straight from a carton—juice, milk—doesn’t matter—and he said, “What if someone else wants to drink from that?” As if I had poisoned the milk. I was unclean!” he laughs. “I was fifteen, Rach. A boy. But it started early, didn’t it? Before even the bath decree—his first ukaz. Making me feel dirty. Unclean. And finally the changing of the locks, remember that one? When I ran away for good. He changed the locks.”

“Sorry,” Rachel says softly. “It was so wretched. I’m so sorry.”

“Why are you sorry? Silly bloody Billy! I don’t care anyway,” he adds brightly. “So yeah. I remember. The singing and all that. Course I do. Go on, then. What were you thinking? That you wanted to tell me.”

“About loins.”

“I can hear all your innards, you know,” says Zach, smiling and pressing his ear closer to her, deeper. “All your innards, doing their innardly things. Fetching and carrying, setting up for the day, all the joe jobs. It’s like Smithfield at dawn in there, Rach. All bustle and holler! You know. Smithfield Market.”

“That’s what I’ve been thinking about. Sort of. Meat—”

“Meat, ma’am, meat!” exclaims Zach, rearing up and stretching, but mindful of his body, listening to his bones and muscles and recording what he feels there, totting up the trouble spots. “You’ve overfed him, ma’am! If you kept the boy on gruel—”

“Stop it, Zach. Just for a minute.”

“Sorry,” he says, sitting back on his heels and sliding his knees apart for balance, and raising his fists to his nose—snuff-­box, smeller—to paw the air until Rachel makes two fists also to tap knuckles with him. Let the day begin.

“I love that bit,” adds Zach, boxing in air. “Oliver Twist v. Noah Claypole! Only time in the whole story Oliver sees red. Only bloody time! Noah insults his dead mother and BANG! Oliver knocks him flat. Punched above his weight, too. A single knockdown blow. Fantastic. And everything changes. Think about it! If he hadn’t bashed Noah—”


“Sorry! Carry on.”

“Loins, then,” Rachel states with a frown. “Well. You know how there are words that never ­really—they are never ­really quite right. You can’t quite trust them. Use them. You know. Without pause.”

“There are words I stare at,” Zach says. “Strange. Every time. Misled, that’s one. I see mizzled. And unshed. I read unched.”

“Me too! But that’s a different thing—except, now you mention it, it’s odd about unshed, that it’s only for tears. Mostly. Hardly ever blood, for instance, you don’t see unshed blood. Unched. Not ­really.”

“Not in my case anyway. Mine sheds all over the joint! I’m a bleeder all right.”

“Don’t fight today!” begs Rachel, impulsive, and apologising just as quickly, reaching out for his mouth to stop the age-­old defense there, the rebuke on his lips. I know, Zach, I know, she thinks. Nothing you can do. Nothing I can do. “Loins, then,” she resumes. “When we were—when I was small—”

“You’re small now, Rach.”

“Yes, yes. I mean, when I was a girl, I thought loins meant ‘belt,’ that it was a kind of belt, or an old word for it. In books, people girding their loins and so on. And then there was ‘loincloth’ and I asked you about it and you said it was that flap of cloth cricketers use, bowlers, some bowlers, tucked into their waistband, for wiping their fingers—is that it? But never mind, that’s what you said and then, Ha ha! you went. Joke! So I thought it must be genitals. Loins is genitals, I decided. And then—then there was Mr. Harris the butcher.”

“In Mount Street. Where Mum took us,” states Zach.

“Yes. Wellington boots and boomy voices and white aprons—”

“For all the unched blood to come,” says Zach. “I liked Mr. Harris.”

“Exactly. I liked him too. And the great hooks, remember? And that row of carcasses and the sawdust and marble and shiny cleavers, and Mr. Harris saying that day, ‘Lovely tenderloin, Mrs. Wolff, I have a lovely bit of tenderloin’—”

“You felt sick. Was it that day? Yeah yeah. We waited for Mum in the square, near the church. The Farm Street Church,” Zach says with a grave expression, protective even now.

“Yes. That day. And she was cross. The display. ‘Quelle cérémonie!’ she said. What a fuss! Funny how she often spoke in French when cross.”

“I fanned you with leaves,” Zach adds, brightening. “Remember?”

“I do. She told you to stop, I remember that too. But the thing is, that day, I saw I had to be wrong, you see, about loins—”

“Can’t leave little kids in a park nowadays,” says Zach. “While you shop. They’d be abducted, abused, chopped in small pieces. Freeze on day of purchase!”

“Frozen when caught, you mean.”

“Fresh out of water, out of the forest, free-­range, oh yes. Fee-­fi-­fo-­fum! But we were safe then, weren’t we, Rach? In the heydays, hey, Rach?”

“We were,” she agrees, touching his lips, stopping his mouth again—oration trap, kisser. “But loins,” she insists.

“She pursued his lips,” Zach laughs. “Another one I misread! Pursued for ‘pursed.’ You know, She pursed her lips. So whenever you do that now, reach out and touch my lips to shut me up? I think, she pursued his lips.”

“That’s so silly,” smiles Rachel.

“I know that. Now I’m pursuing your lips,” he adds.

When Zach kisses her, Rachel is often aware of the pulse in his lower labial, a small heartbeat there. She is aware of a pulsing and a slight thickening of tissue. How many times has this boy bled from the mouth? How many times.

“Go on, then,” Zach urges. “About loins.”

“Yes,” she continues. “Loins. It’s that suddenly it meant more than genitals, more than naked. I saw something raw, you see, to be severed,” Rachel says. “And that day at the butcher’s, the lovely bit of tenderloin, once I had that vision in my head, everything struck me as, I don’t know, terribly grievous and . . . ​perishing. I do mean perishing. Passing. Reduced, anatomical. And Mount Street was so pretty! For a butcher’s. The grille work, the bright glass front, the calligraphy in sepia, and the lattice beds for the meats, the beautiful feathers, partridge, pheasant—”

“And RUDDY ducks!” exclaims Zach.

“Yes. And the elegant street. It was a special journey for us, wasn’t it? An outing with Mama. Mayfair. I let her down that day, didn’t I? Did I? Zach? And the thing is, it’s not as if it smelled nasty, it didn’t smell nasty, I would remember that, if it had smelled—butchery, cloying and rotten . . . ​Oh! I know! I know now. How could I not see—not make the association? I don’t believe it! After a childhood of Russian fairy-­tale-­telling. It’s Baba Yaga’s hut, isn’t it? Her hut on chicken legs . . . ​with children, perhaps, in her pot. Baba Yaga sniffing the air . . . ​I smell the smell of a Russian soul! And flying through the air in her mortar, ­driv­ing it with a pestle. Zach, is there a more fearsome woman in folklore? Is there? Remember Little Bear Cub? Of all the horrid tales!”

“Uh . . . ​Is Baba Yaga in that one?”

“Yes!” says Rachel. “Come on. You know the story. Tasha read it often. Baby found, brought up by bears, adopted by old peasant and wife, grows very strong . . . ​meets the giants, then—”

“He gets the beautiful girl, doesn’t he?”

“In the end. Yes. But first, there’s Baba Yaga. She keeps tearing strips of flesh off the giants, beats them to jelly with her pestle. Hates Little Bear Cub for eluding her. Strips of flesh, Zach! Beats them to jelly!”


“Sorry. It’s just—Baba Yaga. She’s so awful. Odious. So very awful. And since Mount Street, when loin became tenderloin and there was Baba Yaga, and so on, I have to hold my breath if I pass a butcher’s, even a posh one, clean-smelling. I hold my breath for four or five paces before it and beyond it. Silly.”

Reading Group Guide

The discussion questions and suggested reading that follow are designed to enhance your group’s discussion of Be My Wolff, the captivating new novel by Emma Richler.

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 interconnectednessdoesn’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?

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Be My Wolff 1 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
onemused More than 1 year ago
"Be My Wolff" was an odd duck, and I found myself not enjoying it enough to stop listening (I have the audiobook) about 60% of the way through. On the one hand, the writing is very poetic and descriptive. On the other, it gets bogged down in details and seems to be missing a clear, overall plot. There's a lot of Russian folklore and history that were very interesting at times, but I felt like overall, I lost the point of Rachel and Zachariah. In addition, I did not really understand how/why their relationship evolves (especially since they became siblings at a relatively young age), so there's a bit of a creepy factor that wasn't overcome for me. In terms of the audiobook, the narrator does a good job with voices and intonation for the overall book. She captures the lofty writing pretty well. I think I might have liked this better if it was a series of poetry or short stories, which could be digested a little simpler than the actual book in full. The writing is lyrical at times, and the narrator really captures this well. However, the overall story mostly got bogged down in the details and didn't capture my attention the way that I would have hoped. Please note that I received the audiobook through a giveaway. All opinions are my own.