Rating: ★★ 1/2
A few years ago, I kept hearing wonderful things about Carol Rifka Brunt’s Tell the Wolves I’m Home. Brunt’s literary debut ended up on multiple “Best of 2012” lists including the Wall Street Journal and O: The Oprah Magazine.
In a lot of ways, I couldn’t tell what this book was or wanted to be. Tell The Wolves I’m Home fell somewhere between adult and young adult fiction; fairy tale and realism; enjoyable and not enjoyable
Set in the 1980s, the novel centers around 14-year-old June Elbus and her coming of age. June has never felt like she belongs — not in her family, now that her sister Greta can’t seem to stand her; not in the suburbs; not in this time period. When she loses her Uncle Finn, the only person to truly see who see is and loves her for it, June finds herself lost with more questions than answers. Soon, she meets Toby, a man who knew and loved Finn just as much as she did. With the help of her new friend, June reluctantly learns how to navigate grief, growing up, and family dynamic.
I liked the book enough, but I just did not love it in the way that everyone else seemed to. I didn’t think the characters were well-established, especially Greta and Toby. It wasn’t until late in the book that I even started to feel anything close to sympathy (and even empathy) for Greta. She was so mean to June, almost mercilessly so, and we only got little glimpses of kindness–and those glimpses were not enough. Toby was also not well-drawn–we barely learn anything about him except that he cares for June, loved Finn with his whole heart, and has a checkered past. He is introduced as “the man at the funeral” and we don’t end up learning much more.
June was well-developed and her pain was palpable throughout the entire novel. She also has a secret she can hardly admit to herself: she is in love with her Uncle Finn, a man who could never and would never love her in that way. What would have read as crass in another novel felt like a naive girl misunderstanding loving someone and being in love; who felt things too deeply and was too romantic for her own good; who misses her uncle and greedily attempts to find pieces of him wherever she can (even at the expense of others). June’s shame and sadness felt so real that those portions of the book read as confessional poetry.
Honestly, what I liked most about the novel is the thing I can talk about least as I don’t want to spoil it. This part of the plot unfolds slowly and involves June, Greta, and their mother. It takes a long time to reach the resolution but it is well worth the wait. It was a triumphant way of showing how all of these women are connected not only to each other, but to Finn, the man they lost and miss terribly. It was a great reminder that even when we truly believe we are one way that we have to power to change that and recreate ourselves.
“Because maybe I don’t want to leave the planet invisible. Maybe I need at least one person to remember something about me.”
“I had no idea how greedy my heart really was.”
“Greta said he looked like a small gray mother wrapped in a gray spider’s web. That’s because everything about Greta is more beautiful, even the way she says things.”
“There was at least some small beauty in what we’d done.”
“I felt like I had proof that not all days are the same length, not all time has the same weight. Proof that there are worlds and worlds and worlds on top of worlds, if you want them to be there.”
I liked Tell the Wolves I’m Home enough but I felt a little cheated. Certain plot lines cropped up only to trail off. It felt like every part of June’s life was touched on but most of it was surface-level engagement. The book left me wanting more in a bad way. It seems like I was down on this novel but I thought it was fine. Nothing great but certainly not bad.
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Have you read Tell the Wolves I’m Home? Do you agree or disagree with my review? Am I just a heartless reader who misunderstood the purpose of Carol Rifka Brunt’s literary debut?