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Goat Heads and Sand Burrs, P. Kirby's Reading Blog

The good, bad, and fugly books I've read.
Second Nature - Alice Hoffman As I write this, I'm in a reading slump. Again. The other books in my "currently reading" list are boring the ever-loving crap out of me.

Recently, our village library had their annual book sale and I picked this up in hardback for two bucks. Why? Because, even at her worst, Alice Hoffman is eminently readable.

This isn't her worst. Neither is it her best. But it is a lovely story. And I powered through it in just a few days.

Robin is a soon-to-be divorced mom and a small business owner. Her marriage is in shambles after she caught her husband, Roy, doing the nasty with one of his many girlfriends in parked car. Her landscaping business is struggling; she thinks, because she has developed a brown thumb.

One day, while visiting her brother Stuart, a psychiatrist at at a local hospital, she sees a young man sitting on a bench in a lonely hallway. He is in handcuffs, but something about him touches her heart. Okay. Let's be honest. Most of that something is his looks. Though the narrative doesn't give a detailed description of Stephen, the young man, he's obviously drop dead gorgeous.

Anyway, lured in by his beauty, she rescues him and takes him home. Without permission.

Stephen, it turns out, is the sole survivor of a plane crash. When, at the tender age of three-and-a-half, he finds himself stranded in the dark woods, he finds salvation in the form of big dog. Which turns out to be a wolf. Adopted by the pack, he runs wild until years later, he gets his foot caught in a bear trap, on an icy winter night. A group of trappers find him and bring him back to civilization, where he ends up in hospital. Uncommunicative and strange, he is dubbed the Wolfman. He is about to be transferred to a mental hospital when Robin finds him.

Their "love story" is wrapped around the day-to-day activities of Robin's friends and neighbors on the little island where they live. Because this is an Alice Hoffman story, it's set in a northern clime, where the summers are lovely and short, and the winters brutal and unending. Eventually, people learn who Stephen is, which becomes a problem when pets and eventually a child, start getting dead, their throats slit open. Because if you're going to blame someone, especially if you're an insular islander, who better than the local Wolfman?

Like most Hoffman stories, Second Nature is filled with lovely, lyrical ruminations on love, life and death.

Its weakness, however, and the reason for the three-star rating, is the sheer implausibility of the main premise. While I'm a fantasy reader and programmed for a high level of suspension of disbelief, there's a limit to my credulity. Especially, when the story really isn't fantasy. Unlike some of Hoffman's other stories, this one's light on magical realism. Or maybe, the magical realism is the wobbly premise.

I have a hard time believing that a three-year-old child would survive alone in the woods, even with a wolf pack as surrogate family. The premise gets shakier when Stephen moves into Robin's home and integrates almost effortlessly into modern life.

In fact, by making his transition so easy, Hoffman robbed the story of a heaps of potential angst and suspense. This would have been so much stronger if she had written Stephen as more feral, more wolf-like, more dangerous; if the reader was shown his struggle with the divergent sides of his personality. Instead he decides, almost immediately, that he's in love with Robin and settles, ho-hum, into domestic bliss. Consequently, the story is absent any significant tension or emotional oomph.

Easy to read; at times lovely; but not Hoffman's best.