I normally do pretty spoiler free reviews, but I cannot think of how to talk about my reactions to this book without spoiling the heck out of it, so if that’s a thing you want to avoid then you probably need to click right along to another review. Go ahead, I won’t judge. Promise.
Anyway, now that we have that done, let’s talk about Tell the Wolves I’m Home. Our protagonist is June, age 14. She is telling us about the death of her Uncle Finn, her godfather and best friend. It is 1987 and the President of the United States won’t utter the word AIDS for a few more months but it’s the disease that took Finn from June and her family. June’s as up to date as it was possible to be 27 years ago, but the world at large isn’t. It’s a charged climate, and as much as that affects June, and how others react to her and Finn’s death, she’s busy processing the loss of the person she felt she knew entirely, and who knew her. The problem is that through machinations between her mom and her uncle, there is much about Finn’s life that June does not know, and it all comes screaming into her life with the arrival of Finn’s boyfriend Toby at the funeral.
I wish the book had been told from Toby’s point of view. I want to read Toby’s story. I want to know about his childhood in England, I want more information about how he and Finn fell in love because what we are told feels like being short changed, how Toby dealt with his AIDS diagnosis when there was little to nothing to be done and AZT hadn’t been announced yet, what it felt like to get diagnosed with an illness that meant everyone would be terrified of being in physical proximity to you, how he coped with the decisions to accept being banned from Finn’s family’s life and subsequently let them believe he was the reason Finn had AIDS and not the other way around, and how he then attempts to survive losing the love of his life. But most importantly I want to know what it took from deep inside of him to attend Finn’s funeral and know that he would likely be turned away, at the very least, in an attempt to make a connection with the niece he was denied a relationship with and on whom his great love’s final wish rested.
After a few fits and starts, June and Toby begin a clandestine friendship. What evolves is the type of relationship which they should have been allowed to have since Toby had spent the last decade with Finn – living in the same apartment that June visited – but she had no idea he even existed. Not his name, not his stories, she didn’t even know his belongings were his. She thought it was all Finn. This is a great story – the story of Finn orchestrating that his two loves are able to help each other process their loss after his death, even if they had been forcibly kept from each other during his life. But that isn’t really the story we get, although it is by far the best part of the book.
What we do get is another coming of age story set against the backdrop of crisis. But it isn’t as good as others in the genre, such as The Age of Miracles. We spend a lot of (possibly wasted) time with June interacting with what death by AIDS means to the people who must now interact with the Elbus family following Finn’s death. And, how it relates to their individual interactions with the portrait.
And here’s a plot device that eluded me. I loved the early parts of the book where Finn is painting the portrait of his nieces. I enjoyed immensely reading about the work and detail that he put into it, including the wolf’s head between the two bodies in the all-important negative space. But what happens after – the article in the New York Times, the displaying of the work in the living room, the removal to the safe deposit box, the additions made to the painting by the various members of the family, the fixing of said painting, the art professor – all of it, was simply too much. It was another example of the too much factor in this book. There are just too many storylines to be covered adequately. To name only a few I haven’t yet spoken about:
- June has no friends and is generally a social recluse who prefers her imagination and pretending to be a girl in Medieval Europe
- Finn was a renowned artist who left the art world and the portrait he paints of June and her sister Greta is his last and an image of it is ‘leaked’ to the press. We never find out from who or why
- Greta is a 16 year old high school senior who is battling her demons about being pushed to grow up too fast, unreal expectations, the dissolution of her relationship with her sister, and feeling shunned from June’s relationship with Finn.
- Greta has taken to getting drunk at parties and roping her sister into attending them so that she can ‘rescue’ her in her inebriated state without telling June why. (This one was particularly bothersome to me, because I kept expecting to find out that the Drama teacher was abusing Greta in some way).
- Their mother, Danni, gave up her own dream of art after Finn left home to travel and study art on his own. Danni has an equivalent talent to her brother and seems to be holding on to a lot of anger about the life she could have had if Finn had stuck to ‘the plan’.
- Their dad is an accountant, like Danni, and they are so busy with tax Season as to leave June and Greta without supervision for the entirety of the spring. He is often also in the position of apologizing for Danni’s behavior.
Brunt could have written a story about familial relationships and how they can disintegrate so easily without layering all these storylines over the plot. With that said, yes, the writing is good, the word choice is evocative and emotions are inspired, the characters are well drawn, but they can often be difficult to care about and their motives are vague if present at all. But this book still gets three stars because what Brunt does well is the sincere and the heartfelt and this book is teeming with it. I just wanted more.
This review and all my other cannonball reading for the past few years can be found at my blog