Thursday, January 30, 2014

Book Review: Tell the Wolves I'm Home

# of pages: 355
Publication Date: 2012
Publisher: Originally published in hardcover in the United States by The Dial Press, an imprint of The Random House Publishing Group, a division of Random House, Inc., in 2012
My Copy: 2013 Dial Press Trade Paperback Edition - Target Book Club Pick with Reading Group Guide (6 pages)

My January pick was Tell the Wolves I'm Home, the debut novel by Carol Rifka Brunt.

Synopsis: 1987, suburbs of New York City. 14 year old, socially awkward June is pretty much a loner. She enjoys being left alone and walking in the woods by herself. Her interests include illuminated texts, the Middle Ages, falconry, and daydreaming. The only person in the world who really "gets" her is her beloved uncle, Finn. Finn, who lives in the city as an artist and introduced her to Mozart's Requiem. Finn, who knows her secrets, who tells her stories, who appreciates her love of the Middle Ages. Finn, who is slowly dying of AIDS. 
Enter Toby, a mysterious stranger connected to Finn - hated by her whole family. But he has stories about Finn and secrets to share, and he may be her last link to really knowing the uncle she adored...

This is a (yet another) Target Book Club pick. It's actually the third Target Book Club pick that I've purchased off the shelf on a whim, and then really enjoyed. I meant to read it in 2013 but I just didn't get to it. I was actually a bit hesitant to read it initially, because the theme of a beloved uncle dying at a formative time in a young girl's life hits just a little too close to home sometimes. And reading this did bring back memories, but it's been long enough now that I can relate but I'm emotionally distant enough that it didn't do any damage to me. I feel like that's an important distinction.

In any case, there were a lot of things I loved about this book, not the least of which was how very honest its portrayal of a family going through a loss was.The characters were really well written and there was plenty of character development and discovery over the course of the novel.

Obviously the main character of June was really well developed. She had the obvious quirks and slight eccentricities of a 14 year old trying to figure out who she is. She's awkward, she's uncomfortable around people her age, she doesn't understand why her relationship with her older sister involves so much animosity, and she's a chronic daydreamer. I actually found I could relate to her quite a lot in those small, silly ways - in those things we forget as we grow up and then remember at random.

The remaining cast of characters were also really well-developed: her older sister, Greta, was very well done; the peripheral "friends" of the two sisters were very real and served a purpose in the story; of course Finn and Toby were well-developed and their personalities and characters unfolded over the course of the narrative as June's eyes opened a bit which was really effective.

The story-telling was pretty well done, but I really loved how the narrative unfolded, like peeling away layers of skin to the flesh beneath (a morbid yet somehow apropos metaphor...).  I think what I loved most was seeing June see herself grow up over the course of the novel. The realization that the people we love and idolize are often not the way we perceive them to be - people are so much more.  June got to know different sides of Finn through Toby and her mother and her dad, and in that she learned to understand that her sister was more than she appeared on the surface.  I loved that this novel really illustrated why it's so important to "imagine people complexly" and what that actually looks like against the backdrop of a family dealing with sorrow and loss and anger and growing up.  June is forced to realize that she really only sees one side of the story and that we are all so much more than the faces we show to the world.

There's a painting, too. Did I mention the painting? The painting that tries to capture the essence of two girls on the cusp of womanhood, that attempts to catch them before they drift away completely? This painting brings two sisters together, but it also adds a whole other dimension of meaning and depth to the story and has its own little side-story going the whole time.

Generally, I really loved this book and how it showed a girl grow up as a result of a devastating loss in a way that makes this novel so much more than a standard "coming of age" story. It's more complex than that. It's a story about disillusionment and love and different kinds of love and how people change and are capable of change. It's about art and the stories we carry with us and the idea that just because we've lost some part of our childhood or our past doesn't mean that we can't keep making new memories.

There were other things I loved about this book, too, but for fear of giving away everything I'll keep those to myself for the time being. 

I know there were things about this book that I didn't like - things that were trite or cliched or that made it obvious that this is the author's first published work - but honestly after reading about all the things I really loved about this book, I can't remember the things I didn't like other than the lack of clarity at the end. I wanted a bit more of a conclusion or a look to the future of the family but the author just wouldn't give it to me. OH, I also didn't like the way the chapters were broken up. In the end (after I'd finished reading it) I realized that it kind of worked, but while I was reading I found it jarring and annoying that you couldn't really say, "One more chapter and then I'll go to bed," because it just didn't work like that. This book wasn't perfect but it was pretty damn fantastic.

My favorite quotes:

     From the back cover: A love letter to everyone who's ever felt invisible, misunderstood, and a little bit lost...." because that really sums up a lot of what the book is.

From page 59:
I want to imagine wrinkled time, and forests thick with wolves, and bleak midnight moors.  I dream about people who don't need to have sex to know they love each other.  I dream about people who would only ever kiss you on the cheek.
From page 101:
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.
From page 107:
"Thirteen is the right age for a portrait?"
"Of course it is," he said, turning his squinted eye on me.  "It's the moment right before you slip away into he rest of your life."
"Then what about Greta?"
Finn laughed. "Well, I'll have to try to catch her before she slips away completely."
There were other parts I loved, but out of context they don't make sense, and anyway they're underlined in my copy so I'll have them forever, I guess.

Recommended Reading Level: 14+ for some mature content including underage drinking and drug use

Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars - Not much gets 5 stars around here and because this is a debut novel with some nitpicky n00b things and an unsatisfying conclusion I have to mark it down a bit. Otherwise, the writing is very eloquent, the voice is real and at times raw and generally so lovely, and it has great character development and great little side stories that tie into the larger narrative arc.

Who Should Read It: Everyone. People who've recently lost someone they love, people who like art, people who are 14, people who are 14 and like the Middle Ages, people who are mad at their siblings, people who are not prejudiced, people who have special memories with special people, people who like books set in New York City, people who like South Pacific, and people who desire to imagine people more complexly.

Happy Reading,


Further Reading to consider:
You can see Carol Rifka Brunt's very pretty website here:
The page for the book here

**DISCLAIMER: Text used in quotes from the 2013 Dial Press Trade Paperback Edition of Tell the Wolves I'm Home by Carol Rifka Brunt and are copyrighted by her and Random House Publishers. I am not now and never have been an agent of Random House Publishing or any of its imprints and am no acquaintance of Ms. Brunt. This is an unpaid, unsolicited review of a novel I genuinely enjoyed and wished to share. The photo above is property of Whitney Miller as is all text in this review with the exception of those excerpts used for review purposes.**


  1. I really liked this book, too. Maybe it helped that I was a teenager when the protagonist was a teenager -- reading all those 80s references was like a time machine. I found the relationship between June and Finn to be very realistic and moving.

    1. Thanks for the comment, Ginny. I really loved the relationship between June and Finn, as well. And like you said at Haley's blog - it was a great depiction of how difficult it can be to distinguish the different types of love.
      Thanks again for stopping by!


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