In such earlier novels as Seventh Heaven (1990) and Turtle Moon (1992), Alice Hoffman demonstrated her belief that within everyday life exist all the possibilities of loathing and love, selfishness and self-sacrifice, degradation and redemption. As in those works, the characters in Second Nature are confronted with moral choices and spiritual possibilities. Now, however, they must make decisions not only between good and evil but also between two worlds, one simple and primitive, the other civilized, complex, and essentially corrupt.
Appropriately, the story begins in New York City, which can be considered either the pinnacle of civilization or the ultimate expression of its ills. The protagonist, Robin Moore, has driven in from the small island in Nassau County where she lives in order to talk with her brother, Stuart Aaron, about their grandfather Richard Aaron, who made a home for his grandchildren when their parents died but who now, at ninety-one, is daily becoming more difficult. At the hospital where Stuart’s office is located, Robin sees the famous “Wolf Man.” After being found in a trap in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula wilderness, he was brought to New York for physical treatment and psychological evaluation. It is known that he spent his formative years with wolves. Since the Wolf Man will not respond to researchers’ questions, it has been decided that he is not fit to live in society. When Robin sees him, he is in the process of being transferred to a mental institution, where presumably he will spend the rest of his life. When Robin speaks to him, evidently the Wolf Man recognizes a sympathetic spirit, and for the first time he speaks, pleading to be rescued. Robin cannot turn her back on this strange but appealing creature; she spirits him out of the hospital and takes him home with her.
Although most of the residents of Robin’s island think of themselves as poles apart from the urbanites in New York City, in fact they are not as close to nature as they would like to think. If the city represents one extreme, the Michigan wilderness where Wolf Man grew up is the other, and as both Robin and her perceptive son Connor Moore soon realize, the island is no more than a middle ground. Except for a few free spirits, such as Robin, Connor, Richard, and Robin’s former father-in-law, the islanders are as bound by convention as anyone in Manhattan. Therefore, if the Wolf Man is to be safe among them, not only must his actual identity be concealed, but he must also learn to behave like Robin’s neighbors, lest they sense his difference and turn upon him.
Fortunately, the Wolf Man, who remembers being called Stephen, is highly intelligent. It does not take him long to learn how to dress, how to eat, how to speak, read, and write, even how to play chess. Stephen’s grasp of suburban manners is tested at a Memorial Day party, where Robin introduces him as a horticulture student serving an apprenticeship with her. To her delight, no one suspects that he is not what he appears to be. Even Robin’s brother Stuart sees nothing in this civilized young man to remind him of the wild creature who was once his patient.
Once Stephen has successfully slipped into his new identity, thus outwitting his pursuers, the focus of the novel shifts. Yet instead of being diminished once the immediate crisis has passed, the suspense is heightened, for now the major characters are shown struggling not with outsiders, who are easily deceived, but with their own primal urges.
Not surprisingly, it is Stephen who most fully comprehends the importance of what human beings call the animal side of their nature. He can recognize the conflict between his instincts, upon which the wolves base their hopes of survival, and his reason, which tells him in human society he can fulfill his desires only by masking them. When Stephen is hungry, he would like to hunt and kill; however, he cannot chase his prey but must wait patiently for meat to be killed by others, then purchased and prepared. It is even more difficult for someone reared in the wilderness to control his sexual desires. At night he is tormented by his desire to walk down the hall to Robin’s room, but again he knows that if he is ever to have her, he must hide his desperate need.
Stephen does not at first realize, however, that the human beings among whom he lives may be just as strongly influenced by their instincts as he is. Admittedly, Robin has no interest in hunting; indeed, she has managed to conquer her taste for meat and is now a vegetarian. It is not so easy, though, for a human being to deny the need for a mate. In her lonely bed, the civilized female is suffering no less than the primitive male. Not surprisingly, in time...