As an additional book for the Fall Into Reading Challenge 2009, Second Nature was a good choice for its brevity and its unusual romance.

Author :  Alice Hoffman

First Publication Date :  February 1994

Publisher of First Edition :  G.P.  Putnam’s Sons

This Edition’s Publication Date :  April 1995  (mass paperback)

This Edition’s Publisher :  Berkley

ISBN 0-425-14681-2

No. of pages : 290

The Story :

An injured wildman is discovered by a pair of trappers and sent to a hospital for treatment and rehabilitation.  Having lived most of his life with wolves, Stephen, the “Wolfman”,  is considered unmanageable and his failure to assimilate himself in  human society signs his lifelong commitment to a mental hospital.  Before his transfer, Stephen risks asking help from Robin.  She helps him escape and teaches him to adapt socially.  Stephen learns to do so, little by little and in the process,  falls in love with her.   Meanwhile, animals around the neighborhood are being mysteriously murdered, their throats slit.   Soon, it is a little girl.  The neighborhood is terrified and they want their monster…

The Review :

If you pick up an Alice Hoffman novel, expect to always have a contemporary story steeped in a bit of fantasy or magic told in her lovely prose.  Second Nature tackles the human foible of judgement borne from fear and grief  and the  wonderful  inherent human propensity to love.

Hoffman’s writing style is graceful where her thoughts  segues seamlessly from one point to another.  She can move from pleasant to sinister without missing a beat.  The change is so subtle,  smooth and flawless; this is what I really appreciate in Hoffman’s style.

The Wolfman character is dealt with quite well, with Hoffman sketching a believable portrait of his emotions and his thoughts while the character tries to fit in a world he does not understand.

To Read Or Not To Read :

Some readers stay away from fantasy because one is required to “live in another world” while at it.  Hoffman, though, combines a sprinkling of fantasy in a vat of reality to come up with a sub-genre called “magic realism”.  Stories are contemporary with realistic characters and settings but the reader is still required to accept the magic or fantasy as a reality to be able to enjoy the genre well.

Hoffman revels in this genre.  With this book,  she seems to show a wonderful understanding of human nature,  its strengths and failures.

Unfortunately, there are some flaws in this novel, some absurdly unbelievable.  To cite an instance, Robin was able to take the Wolfman from the hospital without a furor being raised later over his whereabouts.  While gaffes like these would surely irritate some readers,  others, like me, may choose to ignore them and just go with the flow.   In doing so, you will  discover a novel with a lot of heart.

My Mark :  Quite Good!

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Author : Alice Hoffman

An 8-year old girl, in a fit of bratty fury, wishes never to see her mother again.  As ugly coincidence would have it, her mother dies in a car accident that very night, and changes this little girl forever.

The entire book speaks of the girl in the first person; so, no name is referenced to her.  For that, I shall assume her name to be also that of the author’s : Alice.

After the tragedy, Alice, being the self-centered person that she is, begins an emotionally self-destructive life based on guilt over what she wished.   She retreats inward, builds a wall against herself, and becomes the Ice Queen — emotionally frigid,  out of touch with her feelings —  quite a depressing character actually.

Indeed the book is dark and gives me a sense of constantly being right smack in a gloomy winter.   But the book is beautiful and the writing, superb. Despite the sense of being enveloped in a cloudy gray, I needed to read and read ’til the end.  I needed to know how Alice gets her redemption and if she ever does get it.

Back to the story…. Alice is struck by lightning and loses her ability to see the color red.  This inability starts to give her a peek of how much she has lost out on life by taking a lot of things for granted.

Like a clam in its shell, she slowly opens herself to relationships with other people.  She accepts her brother’s attempts to reach out to her, makes a new friend, hooks up with a fellow lightning survivor , Lazarus Jones, whose touch can scorch and whose breath can burn (literally).  (Alice Hoffman has a tendency toward the surreal or the fantastical.  But this is what makes her stories so interesting. )

She slowly thaws her own emotional prison and is redeemed by the final realization that life is precious, life is worth living, and people give meaning to life.  Her guilt is overcome with the new sense of knowledge that her mother’s death was never her fault.

In the end, the book’s central message is summed up when Alice says, ” This is what I know, the one and only thing.  The best way to die is while you’re living…”

Alice Hoffman has written a gem of a book.  If you’ve never read her work, this would be a good first start.

My Mark : Excellent