‘Untethered’ by Ruth Rakoff: Beautifully written and well worth the read

"Untethered" is a beautifully written novel by Canadian author Ruth Rakoff.

Reviewed by Jenna Vetsch

(AJNews) – Ruth Rakoff has created a terribly beautiful concoction of pain and hope in her novel, Untethered. She does not shy away from heavy themes as she pulls you into the inextricably connected, yet utterly different, lives of Petal and Rose Wolffe. Rakoff brings to light conversations around mental illness, intergenerational trauma, and Jewish identity that creates opportunities for a variety of viewpoints to surface. Her book provides language to complicated topics that can be a challenge to articulate.

The story begins in New York City celebrating a milestone in Petal’s professional career, when she is suddenly confronted with a crisis involving her twin sister. What was once a diverging path transforms into a journey towards healing. The wounds run deep though, and the road to healing is never linear. For Petal, it is littered with grief, bitterness, and judgements formed from loss, secrecy, and mental illness.

Pragmatic, introverted, and reliable Petal grew up bearing the responsibility of wild, enchanting, and unpredictable Rose. The burden becomes too much though after their high school graduation during a trip to Israel. Away from Der, Petal’s usual support person, suicidal thoughts and self-destructive behaviours create a cascade of events.

Der becomes one of my favourite characters, adding an element of safety even in the darkest of moments. He is a trusted father-figure, and a close friend to the sisters’ grandparents, who Petal leans on for her emotional wellbeing. A flawed character himself, Der reveals snippets of wisdom collected from his own life experiences. He always gives the girls the space to make their own decisions, regardless of whether they align with his own. I found myself using his words of wisdom to help me navigate my own personal struggles as well.

Rakoff jumps between present day and the past, taking us through the beginnings of the Zionist movement, the aftermath of the Holocaust, the establishment of kibbutzim, and the declaration of the State of Israel. These historic events act as a backdrop to better understand the decisions each character makes throughout the story.

The sisters experience a secular upbringing sprinkled with Jewish traditions and rituals which creates, in part, a semblance of order to the chaos and uncertainties in their lives. This Jewish expression is juxtaposed with the ultra-orthodox world Rose eventually immerses herself in. “Jewishness” is a spectrum of religion, spirituality, and culture that forms a broad array of Jewish identities globally. Untethered takes us inside two of these distinct Jewish communities—the secular and ultra-orthodox. These worlds collide as the sisters, at forty years-old, reunite in less-than-ideal circumstances in Rose and her husband’s bungalow, which Petal refers to as the crumbalow.

In the podcast Culturally Jewish, co-hosts David Sklar and Ilana Zackon have a conversation with Ruth Rakoff where she reveals glimpses of her writing process for Untethered. “I am somebody who has always needed to have a creative outlet.” Touched by loss and grief in her own life, she channels personal experiences into this book which evokes authenticity. Rakoff also takes her time spent in literacy education within an ultra-orthodox community, as well as insights gathered from individuals she has interviewed, to build an honest story.

Readers get to follow characters over multiple generations and witness the impact trauma and mental illness can have on future ones. Petal and Rose experience a disconnect on numerous levels as their family’s shadowed past catches up with them. Rose’s current situation doesn’t allow her to fight for what she needs, so Petal fights for both, offering a path for the sisters to reconnect. Festering problems grow when negative circumstances are left untended. Rakoff tackles this head on through uncomfortable and meaningful conversations.

Rakoff’s writing draws you in with her colourful imagery and expertly crafted metaphors. My mind devoured each word, captivating my attention, and leaving me hungry for answers with every chapter.

I found myself days later reflecting on the story, wondering what lay ahead for each character beyond the final page. Although this is a fictional novel, it feels grounded in truth. Untethered is an excellent novel to dissect and discuss within families and school settings, providing vocabulary to talk about difficult subjects. Snippets of dark, twisted humour ironically helps lighten the weighty topics.

Grab a copy of Untethered at your local bookstore and prepare to be transported into the enthralling, tragic, and messy world of Petal and Rose.

Author bio:  Ruth Rakoff is a writer, and the director of a non-profit organization. She has a Bachelor of Arts in English Literature from the University of Toronto. She is grateful for the privilege of writing and making art. Born in Montreal, Rakoff published her first book, a memoir titled When My World Was Very Small, in 2010. Rakoff weaves personal experience into fictional characters and narratives in Untethered, her first novel. She lives in Toronto, Ontario. 

Jenna Vetsch is a Local Journalism Initiative Reporter. 

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