Some­thing Wild

Han­na Halperin

By – October 11, 2021

Some­thing Wild is a first nov­el that weaves its spell sub­tly. Its author, Han­na Halperin, intro­duces us to a pair of sis­ters, Nes­sa and Tanya Bloom, who seem, like the sis­ters in fairy tales, to be oppo­sites. Tanya is rigid, effi­cient, bone-skin­ny, smart, a no-non­sense pros­e­cu­tor. She is mar­ried to Eitan, an exem­plary, reli­able Jew­ish doc­tor from a tra­di­tion­al Ortho­dox fam­i­ly. Nes­sa, though two years old­er than Tanya, is unformed, wist­ful, unteth­ered, self-loathing, and lost. Despite her fraught emo­tion­al jour­neys from lover to lover, she nev­er seems to find sim­ple affec­tion, much less last­ing love. It seems fit­ting that the book begins with Nes­sa aching from a sex­u­al­ly-induced uri­nary tract infec­tion, and her prac­ti­cal sis­ter, Tanya, pro­vid­ing her with an antibi­ot­ic pre­scrip­tion from Eitan.

Nes­sa is not the fam­i­ly mem­ber suf­fer­ing in the most bla­tant emo­tion­al and phys­i­cal ways. Tanya and Nessa’s moth­er, Lor­raine, a poignant, unso­phis­ti­cat­ed Catholic woman has been left by her hus­band. Bro­ken, she even­tu­al­ly mar­ries a seduc­tive man, Jesse, who turns out to be a vio­lent phys­i­cal abuser. Her girls had expe­ri­enced an idyl­lic, but brief, child­hood, in which their Jew­ish father, Jonathan, kept up with cozy tra­di­tions — all of which fall away when he leaves their moth­er for a younger, pret­ti­er woman. Now, as a wilder” era begins, we find Nes­sa and Tanya deal­ing with a moth­er who is reg­u­lar­ly beat­en and choked by her new hus­band, but who some­how keeps com­ing back for more.

The girls, them­selves, know some­thing about wild­ness — even when young, they would chase each oth­er, grab­bing and tick­ling one anoth­er to the point of shriek­ing hys­te­ria. Liv­ing lim­i­nal­ly between order and chaos, they have grown up observ­ing mar­riage turn to betray­al, and pas­sion to punch­es in the face. Needy Nes­sa instant­ly trusts and bonds with her mother’s seem­ing­ly nice new hus­band; tense Tanya sees Jesse for what he is — a man on the dan­ger­ous edge of wildness.

These sis­ters, Halperin hints, have them­selves suf­fered a severe sex­u­al trau­ma in their past, one that their mother’s dead­ly bond grad­u­al­ly retrig­gers. Slow­ly and care­ful­ly, the author reveals what hap­pened to the girls in their ear­ly teens, and why the fam­i­ly lega­cy of play­ing with dan­ger seems so tan­ta­liz­ing to them all. There is an uncan­ny con­nec­tion, Halperin implies, between sex­u­al mag­ic and destruc­tive wild­fire, and the bound­aries between the two are some­times dif­fi­cult to maintain.

As Some­thing Wild builds to a cli­mac­tic end­ing, we feel more and more con­nect­ed to the fixed points of life, which Halperin places for us through­out the book, like step­ping stones. Eitan’s reli­a­bil­i­ty and kind­ness sug­gests a love object who, though per­haps less excit­ing than a thug­gish lady’s man, promis­es the sta­bil­i­ty of a per­ma­nent fam­i­ly. But the chief source of con­ti­nu­ity lies with the sis­ters them­selves. For although this nov­el takes us on a trou­bling jour­ney to the edges of wild­ness, the ten­der, inti­mate, and hon­est bond between Nes­sa and Tanya man­ages to car­ry us to the safer shores of love.

Sonia Taitz, a Ramaz, Yale Law, and Oxford grad­u­ate, is the author of five books, includ­ing the acclaimed sec­ond gen­er­a­tion” mem­oir, The Watch­mak­er’s Daugh­ter, and the nov­el, Great with Child. Praised for her warmth and wit by Van­i­ty Fair, The New York Times Book Review, Peo­ple and The Chica­go Tri­bune, she is cur­rent­ly work­ing on a nov­el about the Zohar, the mys­ti­cal source of Jew­ish transcendence.

Discussion Questions

Some­thing Wild by Han­nah Halperin is an unshrink­ing por­trait of both inter­gen­er­a­tional trau­ma and deter­mi­na­tion. Tanya and Nes­sa are sis­ters whose child­hood took a sharp turn when their father aban­doned the fam­i­ly for a much younger woman, bring­ing an end to both the sis­ters’ youth­ful ide­al­ism and their Jew­ish home life. Now adults, the sis­ters are forced to con­front their moth­er’s new, abu­sive part­ner, and the radioac­tive ques­tions the abuse rais­es for all three of the women about their pasts. Halperin mas­ter­ful­ly depicts the ter­ror, bru­tal­i­ty, and last­ing effects of domes­tic vio­lence. The real rev­e­la­tion of the book, though, is the rela­tion­ship between Tanya and Nes­sa. Halperin depicts the sis­ters’ love for each oth­er with care that radi­ates from the pages; despite their com­plex­i­ties, to each woman, the oth­er will always be home. What Halperin fear­less­ly illu­mi­nates about fam­i­ly, iden­ti­ty, and inti­ma­cy is vital to us all.