I think my colleagues will be glad that I’m finished with this book, as I’ve been an emotional wreck every afternoon after listening to another installment over my lunch hour. The story is set in 1987, in and around New York City, at the height of the AIDS epidemic. Several chapters in, 14-year-old June Elbus’s beloved uncle and godfather, Finn, dies of the disease. Fractures between June and her 16-year-old sister, Greta, which began prior to Finn’s death, open further, leaving each alone with her unique pain. And June’s mother, Finn’s sister, is so caught up in her own grief and resentment that she doesn’t see how her personal issues have contributed to her daughters’ crises.
A major catalyst for the emotional drama of the story is the secret June’s mother forced Finn to keep from June as a condition of him being allowed to be a part of her life: the very existence of his beloved partner Toby, with whom he shared his apartment and life. June learns of Toby’s existence at Finn’s funeral, when her mother spots him outside the funeral parlor, and her father tells June and Greta to alert him if “that man” tries to enter the building.
Several weeks after the funeral, Toby contacts June with a gift from Finn and a request to meet secretly, as she is, according to his note, “perhaps the only person who misses Finn as much as I do…” Thus begins a tentative and covert friendship, orchestrated in part, we find out, by Finn, which brings both comfort and additional pain to June.
What totally guts me about this book is the degree to which pain begets pain, especially between people who love each other. Greta’s pain, an outgrowth of her growing estrangement from June, along with pressure from her mother to not pass up any opportunities, even those she’s not ready for, leads her to cruelly and repeatedly lash out at June – behavior that, counterproductively, just causes more pain and further estrangement.
Similarly, the pain June and Greta’s mother holds on to from her own past – the abandonment she felt when Finn left home at seventeen; her jealousy and regret over the fact that he became the famous artist in New York City, while she wound up an accountant in the suburbs – leads to her irrational ultimatum about Toby, and its cascade of consequences. Her goal may have been to hurt Toby and teach Finn he “couldn’t have everything,” but her daughter June suffers significant collateral damage. Disoriented upon learning how much she didn’t know about Finn, June questions the very foundation of their relationship – essentially losing him twice. And even though she gets some of Finn back through Toby, she struggles with feelings of humiliation at having thought herself the most important person in Finn’s life at a time when everyone else knew he had Toby.
While this book doesn’t come with a “happily ever after” ending, it does suggest that, moving forward, there is hope for redemption and reconciliation for June, Greta, and their mother. Perhaps more significantly, it serves as a powerful reminder to those of us muddling through the mess of our own lives to resist acting out of pain and instead choose love.
Brunt, Carol Rifka. Tell the Wolves I’m Home. New York: Dial Press, 2012.