Tell the Wolves I’m Home – Carol Rifka Brunt
Final Thoughts: ⭐️⭐️⭐️
“Her tears tell the story of what she knows. That the past, present, and future are just one thing. That there’s nowhere to go from here. Home is home is home.” 14-year old June Elbus is in the midst of her own coming-of-age, grappling with her distance from her peers and her unique interests that make it difficult to socialize, when she is confronted by the death of her only true best friend. Her Uncle Finn was a renowned artist who showed her the sights of New York City, and encouraged her passions and individuality. In 1987, the AIDS virus was a terrifying threat, and the entire populace felt their fear of the unknown grow as the virus spread. When Finn falls to the deadly disease, his family is left to wrestle with their memory of him. As June grieves, she experiences intense jealousy and greed over the man that may have been her first love. Nobody knew Finn like she did: not her mother, who resented his bohemian lifestyle; not her sister, Greta, who wanted the grieving process to just move on already; and not the strange man who enters June’s life, claiming to be Finn’s widowed lover, Toby. June reluctantly grows close to Toby because she yearns to piece together her fragmented perception of her place in Finn’s world. As June begins to weaves together her memories of him with those of her family, and she learns heavy lessons about loss, love, and acceptance in the face of moving forward.
Brunt’s debut novel is a graceful, thematic tale that sweeps us along with tragedy, sympathy, and love. She paints the connections between her familial characters with tender and loving brush strokes, and shows us their differing perceptions in a multi-faceted way. Her musings on true love show us that romance isn’t a physical manifestation, and that real love comes from being so intertwined with another person that you see their spirit everywhere, growing like tendrils out of corners of the world you see.
Sisters Greta and June have an interesting relationship; they push and pull at each other like complex waves. If June is too needy or affectionate, Greta reverts into passive aggression and bitterness, and so June largely becomes non-confrontational and allows her sister to make her power plays. When the time comes, though, they reveal that they are terrified of growing up and apart, and that their care and need for each other is deep-seated.
June’s relationship with the people around her is fragile. We don’t see her as a victim of bullying or abuse by her peers, yet she is oddly defensive when they try to connect with her. She struggles with pushing people away, thinking that they’ll mock her, but she really is the only one doing any self-deprecating. Her love for Finn is extremely questionable. By the time the novel starts, we are already reading about Finn in hindsight, from June’s perspective. We aren’t allowed much time to get to know Finn on our own, or make deeper connections to the loss of his character. June mentions many times that her love for her uncle was inappropriately romantic; he was her first love, and her feelings ran deep. This strange love is a motivator for her jealousy, but personally, the insistence of their wrong love distracted me from feeling loads of sympathy for June. She is an outsider teenager, which is a hard thing to be, but as far as we’re told, she has a good family life and she isn’t bullied. She is simply in a deep grieving process for an uncle she was in love with, and she won’t let anyone forget it.
Additionally, all of the characters are jealous to extreme levels. June is jealous of anyone who had a share in Finn’s legacy. Greta is jealous of the closeness June felt toward her uncle instead of her. June’s mother, Dannie, is jealous of her late brother’s creative lifestyle and of having to share her time with his lover. Toby was jealous of June for sharing so much of Finn’s love. While all of this resentment drives the theme home, it’s hard to imagine this many petty people in a room together. They are a family, so it could run in their bloodlines, but these characters are simply dislikable at many points. Their jealousy manifests in their actions, whether it’s Dannie creating ultimatums for her brother or Greta spewing irrational, teenage-girl hatred at her sister. They don’t just muse on their negativity; they become straight-up mean to each other.
Brunt’s beautifully outlined novel is a stark glimpse at one family’s grieving process, and how they come together even after pushing each other apart. Her characters aren’t sugar-coated, and while they rubbed me the wrong way many times, I don’t know if there is a truer reflection of what being part of a family really is.
Bonus: I’ve included my favorite passage here, because it struck me so deeply that I couldn’t leave it dog-rated and forgotten about! Here, June is pondering why her accountant father suffers through tax season instead of doing anything he truly loves.
“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 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.”