Review: Intentions

Intentions by Deborah Heiligman. Knopf Books for Young Readers. 2012. Reviewed from eARC from NetGalley.

The Plot: Rachel is devastated when she overhears her Rabbi having sex with someone who is not his wife. Her parents’ arguments, she can deal with. Her grandfather’s death, she mourns. Her estrangement from her best friend, Alexis, she’s handling.

But her Rabbi? The man she looked up to and admired? Rachel had been the type of girl who liked going to the synagogue to learn more about her faith. Now, though, she is hurt and angry and distrustful. If a Rabbi cannot be trusted, who can? How can she believe in anything he taught her?

Distrusting what she was taught, Rachel begins to do and say things she never would have dreamt of doing or saying before.

The Good: Rachel is young and innocent at the start of Intentions, but the type of young and innocent who doesn’t know she is. Her faith in the Rabbi is like her faith in God: absolute. Trusting. Unquestioning.

Because she has faced some challenges — her parents’ fighting, grandfather’s death, grandmother’s erratic behaviour, Alex’s distance — she would have said she wasn’t young, or innocent, or naive. But none of those things, no matter the pain, involved betrayal; none involved seeing the clay feet of an idol. None destroyed how she saw the world. This, does. Rachel cannot confide in anyone, so keeps everything inside. She doesn’t tell anyone what she saw.

Rachel’s behaviour hurts herself and others; she ends up inflicting damage on Alexis as well as Jacob, the boy Rachel likes. It is not her intent to hurt them, just as it’s not the Rabbi’s intent to destroy Rachel’s faith. It’s not until Rachel harms others unintentionally that she can begin to handle what the Rabbi did. Here’s one of the things I liked about Rachel, or, rather, Rachel’s complexity: I don’t think this was the first time she hurt others. Alexis’s parents went through a difficult divorce, and since then the girls have not been close. Alexis shows anger at Rachel even before we see Rachel give her any reason to, which makes me think that Rachel failed Alexis without knowing it. Without knowing it. Intentions. This, then, is what Rachel is struggling with, what is the loss of her innocence: that even though we don’t intend to, what we do or don’t do impacts others. Her journey is not easy; Rachel does some things that made me angry. At one point I actually thought, rather meanly, “and you think of yourself as a good girl. Good girls don’t do that.”

No, they don’t.

That is the second thing Rachel is learning about: that it’s easy to think of oneself as “good” when hasn’t been tested. Rachel is tested and fails. I love that, because it’s a brave choice by the author. And it then made me think of myself, as a reader, that I judged Rachel that way.

One last thing: as I said, this begins with Rachel discovering, rather graphically, the Rabbi’s non marital activities. Without getting into spoilers, it turns out that some people knew what the Rabbi did, keeping it quiet, only whispering about it, so that some people don’t know. Those people who don’t know are all the more susceptible to the Rabbi. Secrecy: not good. Transparency: good. I found this “we all know and keep it a secret but we sometimes tell people so they know to be extra careful, oops too bad you didn’t know, know you do” so realistic that I got angry. This secrecy served to protect the Rabbi; it meant harm came to those wo weren’t connected enough to know the secret. Imagine the poor woman the Rabbi flirts with, who thinks she is special and it’s real, rather than that she is the latest in a string. Perhaps those keeping that secret don’t intend that type of harm, but it happens.


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