Sunday, December 23, 2012

Tell the Wolves I'm Home (Carol Rifka Brunt)

I have been subjected to a lot of "diversity fiction" in my lifetime. Middle school literacy programs, it would seem, have become fixated upon books about a few key topics (the Holocaust, slavery and the civil rights movement come to mind immediately) in which there is one group being treated very badly by another group and the narrative is about overcoming this difficulty. Obviously, I don't support the hate groups responsible for these historical periods, but after awhile, all the books sort of blur together and only the awful things stick out in my mind. My point here is that, having read so much of this type of fiction, I can recognize it on sight. Tell the Wolves I'm Home felt like that sometimes, and it upset me.

I was really looking forward to reading this book--it sounded interesting and has been highly rated on Goodreads since its publication (with a current 4.22 average rating; that's insane!). Perhaps that's why I was so let down. Expectations once again ruin the day. Boo.

So here's the premise: June has a gay uncle, Finn, who dies of AIDS-related complications close to the beginning of the book. She is devastated, and not just because she has lost her best friend. June also realizes that she was deeply in love with her uncle and has to come to terms with her inappropriate feelings and with losing him. She finds out after the funeral that Finn had a live-in boyfriend, Toby, and he repeatedly attempts to reach out to her in an attempt to connect to the only person who cared about Finn as much as she did. Meetings ensue. Stuff happens. No spoilers.

I love books about love. This book seemed so promising because it would be about an unconventional love. And at times, the book managed to soar so high. There were a few times when I could feel myself thinking that I would love this book, but there were too many problems. As I mentioned, it was a bit too "preachy diversity fiction" for my taste. The book is set in 1986, when nobody understood anything about AIDS. I've certainly never read a book about this particular topic in this particular time period. The preachiness comes forth when we see all of June's family members and friends making awful assumptions about Finn and his AIDS while simultaneously demonstrating their ignorance (it cannot be spread by hugging, for example, but the characters think it can). I understand the importance and the necessity of including all of this behavior in order to paint an accurate historical picture, but it appeared too many times and frustrated me.

June as a main character is tiresome. As she meets up with Toby, Finn's ex-boyfriend, she becomes jealous of him. They were both in love with Finn, but Finn returns his love only to Toby. I am not frustrated with the actual reaction, which seems natural and realistic and strange but believable. This, too, is an issue with repetition. We have to have several meetings where June struggles with these feelings again and again; it's more annoying than it is helpful to understand her character. What's wrong with two instances where her feelings are explicitly discussed, another instance where we see her gestures or body language to gauge her feelings followed by a jump to the point when June starts to like Toby? Instead we have to see June dislike Toby over and over. I get it, stop trying to drill it into me and let your writing lead me naturally to the conclusion.

I took issue with a bizarre subplot with June's sister that was not believable (it had to do with Greta being jealous of June and Finn and dealing with life pressure and I did not buy it for even a second) and the ugly YA trope about coming together by being bad (Looking for Alaska features the exact same theme...didn't like it there, either). There are so many things I hate about YA fiction, and I'm not even sure if this book was YA or not. I filed it under "adult" because that's where I've seen it filed in the library and in the bookstore, but it feels more YA "diversity appreciation" than it does "adult novel".

But I don't want to make it sound like I hated the book. I didn't. June, aside from annoying repetitious behavior, is an engaging and unique character. She is well-written. All of the characters are (except maybe Greta). Unlike a lot of YA fiction, the characters are interesting (I am blathering on a lot about YA fiction right now. Sorry). The writing is clean and is pretty without being frilly; the meditations aren't overly cloying (it helps that they come from a third-person narrator; everything sounds less pretentious coming from the mouth of a third-person narrator). In fact, Tell the Wolves I'm Home had one of the best middle sections (once we get past June hating Toby, of course) of a book that I have read this year, so it's such a shame that the beginning and the ending (which tried too hard to make me cry and did not succeed in doing so; see The Fault in Our Stars) were not as stellar.

Read Carol Rifka Brunt's pretty impressive debut novel about love and friendship and loss and awkward teenagers. I guarantee you'll like it; you just may not love it.

My Rating: 4/5
Tell the Wolves I'm Home on Goodreads
See what I've been reading lately!


  1. love it! Not cheesy or trite at all! Can't wait to read the book and love reading about your mom.

  2. I normally hate the whole "coming of age" thing, but this was done SO WELL. Especially because it focuses on other important things other than just June's feelings. Such a good, sad read.