Written by: Carol Rifka Brunt
Synopsis: 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.
“You can build a whole world around the tiniest of touches.”
Even though I'd read everyone's brilliant and glowing reviews* of this book and even though I borrowed it out from the library I wasn't sure if I was going to ever get around to reading it. Not that I didn't believe that it'd be a gorgeously written début novel that made me cry and warmed my heart in equal measures but sometimes it's hard to start a book that you know is going to send you spiralling through all the roughest emotions. So when my holiday came closer I let it go back to the library unread and without any real intention to pick it up again too soon.
But the shining reviews everyone gave this book came back when I saw it sitting on the shelf at the library and hey, maybe I was in the mood for a book that was guaranteed to knock around my emotions. So I borrowed it out and I gave it a read. And you guys weren't lying in your reviews. It is a stunningly beautiful book and it is definitely, absolutely NOT a book to read in public. After feeling the tears come on at around page 6 it became very clear that this was not a book to take on my bus, a fact which was corroborated by just about everyone on twitter. Of course, that didn't stop me from taking it with me anyway. And up until the final 30 pages of the book I managed to hold it together on the bus and in the park on my lunch break. But for those of you who haven't read Tell The Wolves I'm Home yet (and you really must read it, emotional rollercoaster or no) don't get cocky and think you'll hold it together. Just read it at home. It'll be hard to put off but do yourself a favour and DO NOT read it in public. You will end up a snotty red-eyed mess and you will wish you had listened to me.
This book is about grief and growing up and how differently we all go about the two. When June is told that her uncle (Finn) has died she loses the one person who seemed to understand her and love her as she is. June is a wonderfully unique girl, so thoroughly obsessed with the past she spends much of her time losing herself in the woods in a too small dress and boots her uncle bought her at a medieval fair. But Finn was about the only person who accepted that this was who June was, and not just a phase she was going through. Unlike her parents who seem perplexed by her desire to be alone and middling grades or her sister who seems to think she's uncool and boring, Finn took her to the Cloisters and to see old movies at the cinema and encouraged her art. So in losing Finn June also loses a really valuable asset in navigating her way towards adulthood. And much of this book is about June struggling to keep her head above water. Not only because she is now untethered from the rock who had helped her for so long, but because she comes to realise that Finn had a life outside of her, a past, a career and a love that she'd never known or been given a chance to understand. She, understandably, goes through the full gamut of emotions, hurt, anger, betrayal and sadness when she realises how much there was still to know about her uncle and how much she can now never know.
One of the things this book did so well was show how complicated people are. When I started the book I was infuriated by June's older sister Greta. She was mean to June (unnecessarily so) and unbelievably cavalier about her uncle's illness. Similarly June's mother made me want to tear my hair out and then punch her in the face. But like the characters in Where'd You Go, Bernadette it soon becomes clear that they're all dealing with their own problems in their own ways. Yes Greta is an absolute bitch at times, but if I'm truly honest me and my sisters had some pretty rough years there. I'd like to think we were never quite as antagonistic as Greta but maybe we were. We probably were. As for June's mum, I didn't completely change my mind about her by the end but when you consider that her 14 year old daughter had a closer bond with her brother than she did, you can't help but empathise with her ridiculous reactions. Death can be such a selfish thing and you can't help how you grieve.
There is so much to say about this that I just have no idea how to tackle. June's (probably kind of inappropriate**) friendship with Toby, the locked away portrait that becomes a way for the family to communicate, the parties in the woods and the trips to the amusement park. It's such a tumultuous ride of emotions and overreactions and stupid mistakes and silly obsessions. It's life as a teenager smooshed into 300+ pages and it's so. god damn. gorgeous. I can't express enough how much I adored this book and how much I wish I could read it for the first time again. It astounds me that this could be a début novel and if this is the calibre Carol Rifka Brunt is putting out now just imagine how much her 14th book is going to blow our minds all the way to Mars.
If you've hesitated about whether or not to read this book because of the subject matter, I hear you. It's definitely not the kind of book you can just pick up and be in the mood for any day of the week. But keep it fresh in your mind in case you find yourself wandering the library or bookstore looking for a book that will tear your heart out but then tenderly embrace you until you're feeling whole again. Because when you find you're in the mood for it, it's going to be a real treat.
*Be sure to read Alley, Laura, Meg, Emily and Tika's reviews. It's really hard to review a book knowing they've already done such a fantastic job covering it all.
**I mean, he gave a 14 year old a smoking habit and got her drunk. I love him but dude, no.