WARNING: The following post discusses details of Deborah Heiligman's novel, Intentions which may spoil the book if you have not read it yet. You've been warned!
Conflict is an essential literary element in all works of fiction. The very connotation of the word indicates a clash, an explosion of sorts, between two opposing forces. For writing to even attempt to capture the essence of the human experience, protagonists must fully engage in a complex push-and-pull so readers can believe and relate to the story. Novels run the risk of being too predictable when the stakes are not sufficiently developed, resulting in flat characters and a stock storyline. However, when done effectively, the essential conflict might appear to have a multitude of possible outcomes, effects, and consequences – not only for the main character, but beyond his/her scope as well. Thus the strength of the relationship between given characters, between characters and society, and between characters and themselves becomes the lens by which readers can determine the importance of a particular conflict. Qualities such as honesty, loyalty, and truth very often determine a protagonist from an antagonist – with each reacting in an expected manner to highlight the progression of a character. These aforementioned qualities serve as a basis for the development of inner conflict in the novel Intentions, by Deborah Heiligman. Here, the author builds that inner conflict through the main character’s struggle by creating a solid dilemma to highlight the importance of truth in relationships.
Initially, the main character, Rachel seems blissfully unaware of the limitations of her world. Like all teens, she is trying to make sense of her place in a world she thinks she already understands. But little does she know, everything she once believed true will come crashing down around her and that is where her story actually begins. Heiligman opens the novel with seemingly fully-developed relationships in play; Rachel is active in Hebrew school, has a tenuously changing relationship with her best friend, and is trying to navigate a volatile home life with her parents constantly fighting. However, when she overhears the rabbi having inappropriate sexual relations with a soon-to-be-married member of the congregation, the order of priorities shifts and a particularly interesting inner-conflict emerges. Forced to attend Hebrew school, Rachel wonders how she “can sit here and listen to him” (12) knowing what she now knows to be true about the once exalted rabbi: he is a flawed man, his word has lost its power, and perhaps he’s even a despicable person to boot. This shift in focus, the added layers to the problem, and Rachel’s own desire to right the wrong all heighten the impact of the issues and possible consequences for all involved.
Heiligman’s clear attempt to raise the stakes – the influence of a higher power, the main character’s relationship with her faith, and the possible ramifications for the entire congregation – forces the reader to take note. The idea that truth can be something one might need to hide in order to survive supplants additional pressure for the main character. She does not run and tell her parents because that relationship is in flux. She cannot confide in her best friend because that relationship is strained. Instead, she harbors the information, letting it weigh down on her until she almost destroys herself with the pressure of knowing. Every time she enters the scene of the crime (the sanctuary) she swears she suffers from “post-traumatic stress syndrome” (35). Understanding that she herself is not being inauthentic, nearly eats her alive and the reader can simultaneously sympathize and root for her to prevail.
Conversely, Rachel’s struggle is a realistic one given the wide web of people who stand to lose as a result of her dilemma. Heiligman takes care to paint with a brush that exposes flaws, poses questions, and leaves the reader wondering about the result long after the conflict is resolved. Rachel does not act as she should, but as she must. It is not so much a desire pushing her forward, it’s the stress of the situation she finds herself in. The pain of not being able to tell this secret – whether perceived or real – fuels her motivation for most of the novel and she very often does the wrong thing.
As a result of this inner-conflict, Rachel tries pot, cheats on her good boyfriend with the resident bad boy (who also happens to be said rabbi’s messed up son), and stumbles through a series of desperate attention-seeking interactions with her former best friend. It is this relationship that is the most frustrating one for the reader to accept. Rachel seems to teeter between wanting Alexis to go away and pathetically begging for her to stay. The fact that Rachel goes so far as to frame her for shoplifting seems to signify a deep character flaw in Rachel’s own progression. Whether Heiligman is trying to make a statement here or not, this action suggests that Rachel’s downward spiral is complete.
Finally, the inner conflict explodes and the secret is exposed. If the novel has one main flaw, it is in the cheeky resolution. Readers who are emotionally invested in Rachel, her family, and even the rabbi might be disappointed with Heiligman’s attempt at smoothing over the ending with a rose-colored paintbrush. The falling action seems rushed and the tone too light-hearted for the heavy musings that preceded it. The conversation between Rachel and the rabbi on page 245 simply does not hold the same emotional weight or value:
“‘I know what you did…’
‘Rachel,’ he says.
‘I hate you,’ I whisper. I look up. He’s looking at me, not away. ‘I hate you!’ I say again.
The rabbi sighs” (245).
Additionally, the conversation continues to unravel in a rather unbelievable series of back and forth exchanges that also do not ring as true as they should. Rachel even goes so far as to give the rabbi advice about his son. For me, this exchange not only weakens the journey but threatens to unravel the very core of the conflict build throughout the novel. I simply want more from Rachel, from the plot, from the people (which may or may not be fair). She's such a feisty character and her voice will pull you in, but the ending is a bit too glossy for me. Overall though – the inner conflict fuels the progression of the plot while demanding that readers consider all possible consequences beyond the obvious. Young adults will relate to and root for Rachel despite the fact that many of the relationships used to fuel this fire change or dissolve altogether. But at last, Heiligman creates a flawed heroine on a quest for deeper understanding and that makes all the difference in the end.