My co-reviewer today is Laura, who writes the book blog Little Book Fiend and can be found on Twitter @laurabookfiend.
★★★★★ (5 stars)
Synopsis from Goodreads: 1987. There’s only one person who has ever truly understood fourteen-year-old June Elbus, and that’s her uncle, the renowned painter Finn Weiss. Shy at school and distant from her older sister, June can only be herself in Finn’s company; he is her godfather, confidant, and best friend. So when he dies, far too young, of a mysterious illness her mother can barely speak about, June’s world is turned upside down. But Finn’s death brings a surprise acquaintance into June’s life — someone who will help her to heal, and to question what she thinks she knows about Finn, her family, and even her own heart. At Finn’s funeral, June notices a strange man lingering just beyond the crowd. A few days later, she receives a package in the mail. Inside is a beautiful teapot she recognizes from Finn’s apartment, and a note from Toby, the stranger, asking for an opportunity to meet. As the two begin to spend time together, June realizes she’s not the only one who misses Finn, and if she can bring herself to trust this unexpected friend, he just might be the one she needs the most.
Why did I read this book?
L: This is one of those books where the title drew me to it first. Then I read the blurb and knew I had to read it! Thank you Hannah for introducing me to this heartbreakingly beautiful book.
H: I stumbled across it when browsing goodreads – I think it was a “Readers Also Enjoyed” suggestion and noticed that not only had lots of friends there had read it but they all gave it four or five stars.
Favourite thing about the book:
L: My favourite thing about this book was the complexity of the relationships between the characters. Not just between June and Finn and Toby, but June and her family, and Finn and Danni (June’s mum) too. I loved that it explored friendships that defy age boundaries and also that “grown ups” can be just as petty and foolish as younger folk.
H: I loved so much about this book that it’s hard for me to review it at all (I always find it easier to say why I didn’t like something than why I did, I must be a malcontent) nevermind pick a favourite thing, but I’ll plump for: the relationships between the characters. Particularly between Toby and June (the push-pull of their developing friendship and June’s initial resistance to it), Greta and June (the mystery of why they drifted apart and why Greta finds it hard to let herself be vulnerable, all the love and hate and fun that goes into the relationship between two teenage sisters) and Finn and Greta (okay, he dies at the start of the novel, but he is a still a big presence. Of particular interest were the depth of June’s feelings for Finn and how he handles them).
L: + I really admire the way this book explored the history behind some of the characters’ unpleasant behaviour. They don’t just simply do mean things because they are mean people, but because they are hurt, jealous, damaged and very, very human.
+ This book made me cry. I love a book that makes me feel that deeply.
+ This quote: “I don’t think God would create a disease just to kill people like Finn, and if he did, then there’s no way I ever even consider worshipping him.”
H: + Carol Rifka Brunt’s prose. She is a beautiful writer. Within a few pages I was in love with the novel’s style – it effortlessly swoops you into another world and makes you feel that her characters are whispering their most intimate thoughts to you. I’m not sure if she’s writing a second novel but if/when she does I’ll definitely read it.
+ The handling of the AIDS issue within the story. It reminded me of books I read on the topic when I was a child (especially Morris Gleitzman’s Two Weeks With The Queen, does anyone else remember that?) when HIV was still a death sentence and surrounded in hushed tones (partly because it was linked so closely to the gay community and gay rights still had a long way to go. Well, they still do, but they had even further to travel back then).
+ The novel’s setting – both physical (NYC and the New York suburb of Westchester) and chronological (1987, and it isn’t forced or made a big deal of. It just feels right).
+ Tell the Wolves I’m Home is an excellent study of the impact of loss in a person’s life and how your life can be left with a gaping hole that’s easier to fill at some times than it is others.
+ The book will (gently) make you question (your) life: are you living it as you should, are you taking the opportunities you can?
+ This: “I really wondered why people were always doing what they didn’t like doing. It seemed like life was a sort of narrowing tunnel. Right when you were born, the tunnel was huge. You could be anything. Then, like, the absolute second after you were born, the tunnel narrowed down to about half that size. You were a boy, and already it was certain you wouldn’t be a mother and it was likely you wouldn’t become a manicurist or a kindergarten teacher. Then you started to grow up and everything you did closed the tunnel in some more. You broke your arm climbing a tree and you ruled out being a baseball pitcher. You failed every math test you ever took and you canceled any hope of ever being a scientist. Like that. On and on through the years until you were stuck. You’d become a baker or a librarian or a bartender. Or an accountant. And there you were. I figured that on the day you died, the tunnel would be so narrow, you’d have squeezed yourself in with so many choices, that you just got squashed.”
Least favourite thing about the book:
L: I would love to know more about what happened to June as she grew up. I have this vision of her becoming a nurse or something like that to support people with AIDS. But I guess this is also a good thing about the book. I feel it’s a sign of a great story if it makes you care so much for the characters that you want to know what happens to them after they step of that final page.
H: Dream sequences. There are a few, and everyone who reads this blog knows I hate them.
L: At times I felt Finn seemed a little perfect. Then again, we were viewing him though June’s rose-tinted recollections…
H: None! I absolutely loved this book.
L: June. I loved her introspection and insecurity, her boldness and her fears. I loved the way she grew as the book progressed. I also loved her obsession with the past. I found it very poignant that she wanted to live in a “simpler”, romantic time when the world around her is growing more and more complicated and frightening.
H: Toby. I was rooting for him and his friendship with June all the way through. There was something gentle and caring about him, and I liked hearing about his skilful hands and the secret basement room Finn made for him. I liked June too though and appreciated that she wasn’t afraid to “own” emotions she found embarrassing or choices that weren’t the best (Toby was the same, in fact), and that she didn’t care too much about fitting in with her peers. She was generally reflective and mature for her age, though seemed to have a blind spot regarding her relationship with Greta (or more specifically what Greta’s feelings about their relationship might be).
L: This is a tough question to answer. For most of the book I would have instantly screamed: Greta! But as I mention above, for all she is incredibly mean and vindictive, and pretty much a complete bitch to June, her behaviours mask a deep vulnerability and sense of loneliness.
H: Danni (June and Greta’s mother). As the novel progressed and we came to understand her better I did feel more sympathetic, but (without wanting to give away too much of the story) her decision regarding Toby and Finn’s relationship was unforgivable.
I recommend this book to:
L: ~ Readers who enjoy coming of age stories, particularly ones that explore big issues.
H: ~ Pretty much everyone, to be honest. If you enjoy beautifully written literary novels then you will love this.
~ Fans of The Perks Of Being A Wallflower. This is a better book – less affected somehow (I loved the book when I read it as a teen but as an adult found it a bit cringey, though I think the film version is excellent) – but encompasses some of the same themes such as loss, GLBTQ issues and is set in a similar time period.