This deeply moving novel, told from the point of view of an awkward 14-year-old girl in 1987, kept reminding me of To Kill a Mockingbird, which it even references once in passing. That's not to say that it's derivative--it most certainly isn't--but it is a powerful book about love, discrimination and misunderstanding, with a young female narrator, set in the early years of the AIDS epidemic, which figures prominently in the story. I couldn't recommend it more highly.
June Elbus is the goddaughter of her beloved uncle Finn, a celebrated artist who is dying of AIDS. As one of his last acts, he decides to paint a portrait of her and her sister, Greta. Once he dies, she learns that he was in a committed relationship with a man named Toby, who seeks her out, even though her family blames him for Finn's disease. Eventually they become close friends--she often sneaks into New York City from Westchester to visit him. And somewhat reluctantly, she begins to share memories of Finn with Toby, who has secrets of his own.
Tell the Wolves I'm Home is too complex a story to recap here, but along the way, Greta, a gifted singer who had been June's close friend and is now a mean older sister, contends with her own insecurities; their mother, Finn's sister, deals with her own lost opportunities; and once the painting's existence is leaked to the press, it becomes a focal point for much of the storyline. Because of Finn's renown and the fact that he hadn't produced any new shows for the past eight years, it is suddenly extremely valuable. I especially liked June's fixation on the Middle Ages, which she shared with Finn, and her inept interactions with her peers, especially young Ben, who keeps trying to interest her in Dungeons and Dragons. (Author Carol Rifka Brunt's various references to 1980s culture are spot on.)
When I first started reading it, part of me was saying, "Not another book about AIDS," but I found I literally couldn't put it down, and I devoured it in just a few days. Brunt so accurately captures the mindset of an adolescent who thinks she doesn't fit in anywhere that every page rings true. More than once its poignancy moved me to tears.
It's difficult to convey just how rewarding a book this is, but it's one of the best I've read in a long time. It may even be destined to become a classic, and I don't say that lightly. If you like intelligent, insightful literary fiction that takes on the human side of controversial subjects, particularly with a coming-of-age element, then you're sure to love this book as much as I did.
on June 25, 2012
I've been thinking about this novel ever since I closed the book and will be recommending it to everyone I know! 14-year-old June is a winningly awkward narrator who wishes she lived in the Middle Ages - she wears long skirts and lace-up boots, lugs around The Portable Medieval Reader, and wants to be a falconer when she grows up. We meet her in 1987 New York and her favorite uncle has just died of AIDS. Her parents seem more angry and bewildered than sad and June, with no one else to turn to to deal with her grief, strikes up an unlikely friendship with her uncle's boyfriend. Rifka Brunt does an amazing job charting their relationship in this brilliant coming-of-age novel.
I have reviewed over two hundred books on Amazon in recent years, and in each case I point out the virtues and flaws in each one. This is the first time I have absolutely nothing negative to say about a novel I'm reviewing. TELL THE WOLVES I'M HOME is brilliant, and deeply moving without being sentimental or melodramatic. It is truly a must read.
In the novel, June, the 14 year old heroine, is not a typical teenager of the 1980s. She listens repeatedly to Mozart's Requiem, wears lace-up boots and wishes she were a falconer in the Middle Ages.
When the story begins, uncle Finn whom June adores, dies of Aids. Her accountant parents are buried in tax returns, and her older sister Greta, with whom she used to be close, treats her cruelly. Little does she expect that she will develop a secret friendship with Finn's lover Toby, who likewise is deeply grieving Finn's death, and who also has Aids. To complicate matters, June's mother, jealous of her brother Finn's attachment to Toby, will have nothing to do with Toby, and blames him for Finn's death.
Also central to the novel is a painting that the renowned artist, Finn has painted of Greta and June - a painting which will have a significant role to play upon June's relationship with her sister and her parents.
Author Brunt writes of June's experience of Finn: "Other than the green tie at his waist, the only color Finn had was in the little splotches of paint all over his white smock. The colors of me and Greta. I felt like grabbing the paintbrush out of his hand so I could color him in, paint him back to his old self."
With astute and idiosyncratic detail, Brunt realistically conveys the experience of growing up in the 1980s, when the specter of Aids is haunting the nation.
However, this is not a novel about homosexuality or Aids, although both factors provide context for the issues which arise for June and her family. The author sensitively handles both subjects. But TELL THE WOLVES I'M HOME is at least as much about coming of age, jealousy in sibling relationships, learning to trust, establishing loving (albeit unconventional) relationships, taking whatever risks are necessary for the welfare of the people for whom we care, and coping with death and loss.
"I need to work out how to keep things flying back to me instead of always flying away," June acknowledges to herself, as death plays a much larger role in her life than it does in the lives of most girls her age.
Author Carol Rifka Brunt is adept at entering and conveying the thoughts and emotions of the precocious and unusual June, as well as portraying the insecure and tormented character of sister Greta and older, grieving new friend Toby. Brunt brings her characters to life so that we feel deeply for them, and appreciate the very real and sensitive platonic connections which June develops with older males, in defiance of convention.
Finally, in simple but carefully crafted language, Brunt delicately expresses the experience of the reflective June, who in the midst of loss, deprivation and conflict, maintains a capacity to love. As readers, we participate deeply in June's awakening to her true self:
"When I go to the woods now, I always head along the brook and go straight to the big maples....What if there's a piece of chunky strawberry bubble gum still bundled up in its waxy wrapper or a weather-faded matchbook, or a fallen button from somebody's gray coat? What if buried under all those leaves is me?"
I couldn't recommend a book more highly than I recommend TELL THE WOLVES I'M HOME.
on June 27, 2012
I started the day with a one, maybe two cup. In bed. With this book. And it was a good thing that there was nothing urgent I had to do that day, because I read it in one sitting. Loved everything about this wonderful story. There are many kinds of love, and this story explores love, envy, jealously, family, grief, loss and redemption. There were several times when I cried. The good kinda of crying, not the sad kind. I hugged this book to my chest when I was done. What a lovely debut novel. The world is a better place with this book in it. 5 stars.
Tell The Wolves I'm Home is not a badly written book; quite the opposite. Carol Rifka Brunt writes a very compelling coming-of-age story of an alienated teenager named June Elbus, who forms a very close and special attachment to her uncle Finn. He is the only one who truly "gets" her, but very early on, he dies of AIDS.
June soon discovers that Finn had a longtime partner named Toby; June's mother forced Finn to not reveal his existence as a condition for spending time with June and her sister Greta. The friendship that develops between June and Toby is the catalyst to heal them both...if only they will let it.
It's a heartwarming book yet it seems to me that Tell The Wolves I'm Home works better as YA (young adult) literature. It has all the elements: teen protagonists, a theme that is subordinated to more tangible aspects of plot, setting and character, very telegraphed messages, and an educational aspect about what it was like to be gay at the advent of the AIDS epidemic. The message is one of tolerance and forgiveness - a message that is too often lacking in the country today. If I were reviewing this book as YA literature, I might have very well 5-starred it.
But I came into the book with other expectations. There are some fine portrayals here; June's testy relationship with her slightly older sister, Greta, is quite authentic. The unveiling of family secrets and motivations is likewise compelling. And the backdrop of the 1980s - a time of many anxieties and also possibilities - works nicely.
My rating is based solely on my own reading experience and should not distract other readers from picking up this book about two lonely people, trying to come to terms with their grief. Many readers/reviewers I respect connected far better than I did.
on May 27, 2013
I picked this book for book club and I'm a little disappointed that I did so. The description of the book seemed to allude to so much more than I was given. I feel shortchanged. The first half of this book had me chomping at the bit for more - the dynamic between June and her Uncle Finn was orchestrated beautifully. As the book is set in the 80s when there wasn't much information about AIDS, the ignorance showed by the characters was exactly as I remembered it from that time. As the book went on, I found it disturbing that June was in love with Finn and she was borderline possessive. Also disturbing was how Finn's lover was trying to have a relationship with June because in essence, they each had no one. If it didn't seem too creepy, it would have been nice to read about. There were some touching moments but overall, a 30 something gay man who just lost the love of his life trying to have a relationship with the goddaughter of his lover even though he knows her family despises him is...odd. June was way immature and it didn't seem she was all that bright. Plus, her behavior was sadly hermit like and I had to wonder if she didn't have bigger issues. Big sister, Greta, was a total bitch. The author tried to set up how and why she was the way she was but it didn't click for me. But then I admit a little bias because I have a sister who was and still is like that. She only got worse with age and I haven't spoken to her in years so trying to like Greta just didn't happen for me. As for their father, he was a total henpecked husband - an automaton who went to work and had zero skill as a parent unless it was to tell the girls to keep quiet. Not even when he had an open discussion with June did I feel he was really trying. The mother, on the other hand, well, she was ridiculously ignorant - and borderline abusive in her passive aggressive way. STOP HERE IF YOU DIDN'T FINISH THE BOOK.....
It all fell apart for me when Greta drove to Manhattan so that June could get Toby from the hospital after she got him into legal trouble. As a former New Yorker, Greta driving on a learner's permit from Westchester is hilarious because most seasoned drivers find it difficult to traverse Manhattan by car. Also, June, being 14 or 15, I can't exactly remember, just waltzed out of Bellevue hospital with an AIDS patient and brought him to their home. All of a sudden, her parents are open to Toby and all ill will is forgotten because suddenly he's about to croak on their couch. It just seemed like it ended all too abruptly and the resolution of the characters didn't seem to be there. It was well written, I will say that, which was why I was able to finish it.
on March 1, 2013
I enjoyed the book for a lot of reasons: I could easily see myself and my sister in June and Greta, and the background was familiar because I grew up in the same era. The first-person narrative from 14YO June's perspective is funny, triumphant and sad, and the reader gets to experience her gradual realization of both happy and unhappy truths. While not exactly chick lit, women in particular will recognize the difficult terrain of the tween and early teen years.
That said, I could never quite accept the series of events that support the story, and that has sort of ruined it for me. According to the story, June's mother Danielle forced her brother, June's beloved uncle Finn, to keep his lover Toby a secret from June. Danielle knows that Toby and Finn met while Toby was serving time in a British prison, and she believes Toby is responsible for Finn's AIDS, so she pressures Finn to keep Toby away from her children.
Toby later tells June that when he and Finn got together (in 1977), no one knew what AIDS was, and that they were essentially diagnosed at the same time; neither would willingly have risked the other's life, and they didn't really know or care whether one had infected the other. Later still, Toby reveals the he couldn't have given Finn AIDS, since Finn was his first lover, but that Finn never knew that.
But it makes no sense that Finn would reveal Toby's past to Danielle, and makes even less sense that Finn and Toby would let her believe that Toby had given Finn AIDS. Finn's relationship with his sister is described as being quite strained by the time Toby enters the picture; there is just no reason to accept that Finn would have casually shared damaging personal information about Toby with Danielle. Toby tells June that he and Finn agreed to let Danielle think Toby had given Finn AIDS, but no motivation for this pointless lie is ever given, except that it rather too conveniently gives Danielle a reason to hate Toby, and sets up the situation and tension that propel the story. Maybe I'm too picky, but I couldn't help but find the back story contrived and false.
on December 29, 2013
Expected this to be so much better. I dragged myself through this because I kept hoping for more insight into the story and the outcome...hoping the book would come together and be worthy of the praise heaped on it. I did like the ending, but getting there wasn't worth it. The book rambles and beats the reader over the head with June's obsessive and romantic love for her gay uncle and then her feelings for his partner. I found her to be unbelievably naïve and childish in her thinking and her actions. Then, in the reverse, she is making trips to Manhattan solo, spending hours and hours alone with her uncle Finn's partner, Toby. He is aware they are meeting without her parents' knowledge or approval. June is fourteen and he encourages her to visit and blithely provides her with cigarettes and alcohol. No adult man would do this with a fourteen year old girl he was not related to...not unless he was some kind of pervert, which Toby was not. And, he was also not stupid, so I can't explain these parts of the book.
Greta was the more interesting sister to me. She was desperately wanting her sister's love and companionship, and June devotes all of her love and attention to their Uncle Finn, and then moves on to caring for Toby after Finn dies. June has ignored Greta to the point that Greta has become mean and spiteful...understandable. There is also a rabbit trail involving Greta that goes nowhere - the author attempts to lead the reader to believe Greta is being sexually harassed or assaulted by her high school musical director. Terrible ploy that should not have been included.
The writing was not stellar. The story could have been exceptional, but I couldn't bring myself to care about any of these characters, except perhaps, Greta, because she was believable. The rest of them were not. The author has talent, but has a long way to go in editing her work and developing her characters.
In all, I would not recommend this to my friends or book club members. I did not find it depressing as some reviewers have said. I only found it not worth the time.
on June 24, 2012
This really is a fantastic book! I loved getting to see the ins and outs of all of June's relationships, particularly how they all changed throughout the story. Also, having been a child of the 80's and aware of the AIDS epidemic, and yet too young to understand, it was interesting for me to consider a 14-year-old's perspective as an adult. I wold definitely recommend this book to anyone who enjoys a well-told story. It is hard for me to believe this novel is Brunt's debut. I look forward to reading more of her works in the future!
on November 12, 2013
I am sorry. I don't get all the hype. I didn't like this book -- at all. First of all, there were many factual errors. Aren't the orphans in Annie 11 year olds? We just saw the show in NY and all the orphans were young girls. There were many examples of this kind of thing. It distracted me and had me questioning the whole premise of the story. Towards the end when the police bring Greta home in a pouring rain storm, a few minutes later moonlight shows through the curtain, huh? And a 16 year old girls becomes an alcoholic because her sister is in love with her gay uncle? I found this book tedious and boring. I kept waiting for some grand climax but it was all just wet.