You may as well tell them where you are, because they’ll find you anyway. They always do.
This 2012 novel by Carol Rifka Brunt deals with the AIDS crisis of the late 1980s, sibling relationships, love and jealousy. The narrator, June Elbus, is 13 when her beloved Uncle Finn dies from AIDS. Finn was a renowned artist and before dying, he painted one last portrait of June and her older sister Greta. Finn and June had had a very close relationship, and she takes his death hard. But what makes it harder is the discovery that Finn had a lover, Toby, whose existence had been kept secret from June. When Toby reaches out to June, she is torn between feeling jealous of him for having a piece of Finn that she never knew and wanting very much to maintain that connection to Finn through Toby. The story then deals with the relationship that develops between June and Toby and the repercussions it has for June’s family.
June’s relationships with Finn, Toby and Greta are at the heart of the story. The two sisters couldn’t be more different. June is quirky and a bit of a loner. She likes spending time in the woods near her home, imagining that she lives in the Middle Ages, even dressing the part. She doesn’t have any close friends and knows people think she is weird, but she is not bothered by that. Greta, on the other hand, is a talented singer and actress, so smart she skipped a grade. Greta is ready to graduate high school at 16 with acceptance to Dartmouth and the possibility of a part in Annie on Broadway. She and June had been close as younger children but have drifted apart. Greta seems to treat June with derision and contempt, but occasionally shows flashes of her old self, throwing June off balance.
Finn was not just June’s uncle but also her godfather, and he doted on her. Finn aided and abetted June’s love of the Middle Ages, taking her to the Cloisters and buying her boots that June felt were Medieval in look. Although Finn’s final portrait is of both sisters, June feels it was done more for her than for Greta, that this was Finn’s way of getting more time with her before his death. June’s love for Finn is obsessive, and she feels its inappropriateness but struggles not to deal with that head on.
June’s relationship with Toby is complicated. The family, particularly June’s mother, hate him for infecting Finn with AIDS. But June is intrigued by Toby. On one hand, she is jealous of his position in Finn’s life and feels that her experiences with Finn are somehow tainted by his existence and knowledge of June while she was in the dark about him. On the other hand, she knows that she can learn more about Finn and keep him alive by getting to know Toby. Eventually she sees greater value than that in their friendship.
The relationships between characters in this story are fraught with intense love and jealousy. It seems that every character feels in some way cheated out of enough love by some other character, is jealous of what they perceive others having and oblivious to others’ pain and need. And at the center of this love/jealousy vortex are Finn and his painting. Finn is, in artistic terms, the negative space — the missing thing that helps define those around him, and his painting serves as a catalyst for changing the family dynamic within the Elbus household.
The wolf motif throughout the novel is fascinating to me. Why would Finn call his portrait of his nieces “Tell the Wolves I’m Home”? Who are the wolves? Those questions and the fate of the portrait bring about a somewhat sad, somewhat happy ending to the story. I thought this was a brilliantly conceived and executed novel. Although I don’t think it’s classified as YA, it would certainly be an appropriate book to put in the hands of a young adult. The themes would resonate with teens and they’d get an education on the early AIDS epidemic in America.