A self-consciously Dickensian account of an unconventional love from the author of Sister Crazy (2001) and the memoir Feed My Dear Dogs (2005).
Rachel Wolff is the daughter of Russian émigrés living in London. Zachariah is her lover. He is also her adopted brother, and therein lies the conflict at the center of this novel. It’s not that Rachel and Zachariah have a problem with their unusual romance—they do not—but their father does, and Lev’s disapproval troubles them both in different ways. Zachariah wants Rachel to choose between the two men. Rachel wants to maintain relationships with both. What could be high melodrama or gut-wrenching realism is, in Richler’s hands, a rollicking picaresque-cum-romance. Dickens is directly invoked, and Angela Carter’s screwball adventures—Nights at the Circus and Wise Children—come to mind. The difference is that Dickens’ novels, wordy as they are, are stuffed with incident. And Carter’s plots rattle along at a dizzying speed. Richler's novel is effusive and antic, but it’s also quite slow. Rachel and Zachariah are world-class chatterboxes, and the narrator never passes up an opportunity to set a scene in minute detail. “Rachel scrawls an encomium one day on her desk pad alongside a sketch of a pugilist in attitude, an encomium to Zach’s career. She uses the Regency style they both enjoy so much and reads it to Zach when he is home.” Readers immensely charmed by the preceding will almost certainly enjoy spending a few hundred pages with these characters. Readers who are less delighted should be aware that the whole book is like this, each and every paragraph. This is, among other things, a story about stories—Rachel plunders history, folklore, and fairy tales to create a pedigree for the orphaned Zachariah—so enthusiasm for the richness of the English language makes some thematic sense. But the Victorian slang and the Renaissance swears and the boxing arcana lose a bit of magic with each repetition.
Long, slow-moving, and more than a little precious.