Hairy Legs and a Penis

Intentions, by Deborah Heiligman (Knopf, $16.99), is a swift, funny and profound young adult novel about 15-year-old Rachel Greenberg’s first encounters with moral complexity and adult failure. Heiligmans’ ability to imbue the simplicity and naiveté of a child’s voice with the biting sophistication, and even wisdom, of an adult makes the book suitable for readers of all ages.

The story opens with Rachel discovering her beloved Rabbi Cohn having sex on the bima of their synagogue with a woman who is definitely not his wife. We then find out that what Rachel has just witnessed is not her only problem: her parents are fighting incessantly, her grandmother is battling severe dementia, her boyfriend Jake isn’t telling her something, and Alexis, her best friend, has, of course, decided she’s got better people to hang out with. Oh, and one more thing? That woman on the bima may have been Rachel’s mother.

Rachel handles it all with humor, but at some point the moral and religious dissonance in her life catches up with her. One night, Rachel succumbs to passion at a dimly lit party and cheats on her boyfriend with the good-looking rabbi’s son; the next day, after discovering Jake has cheated on her with Alexis at the same party, she frames Alexis, a serial shoplifter, for shoplifting at the mall. In these climactic scenes, Heiligman makes painfully clear how easily parental and peer identities bleed into children. Rachel’s struggle is ultimately the classic young adult psychosocial struggle to tease out her own identity from surrounding ones. Only when she succeeds at this does she begin to make things right.

As Heiligman’s writing style blends adolescent foolishness and adult gravitas, so do her characters: Rachel is very much a child to her parents, yet she is uniquely mature and motherly towards Randy, her illiterate seven-year-old student; Rachel’s mom gives sage dating advice, yet is heart-wrenchingly still a child as she cries “Mommy! Don’t go, oh no!” during her own mother’s death; Rabbi Cohn vows to return from his wayward path only after Rachel and his own teenage son show him the way. As Alexis delicately puts it, the rabbi may be a rabbi, but he’s also “just a guy, a man…hairy legs and a penis. Blood, guts, shit.” Page in and page out, Heiligman reminds us that we are all like Russian nesting dolls — at our oldest, eternally encompassing our previous selves, and at our youngest, already standing beside the projections of who we will one day become.

Diane Kolatch is an aspiring writer in New York City.