The first time I saw this book, I was in Target. I grocery shop for six people and sometimes I like to reward myself for that by sneaking a book into my cart. Not every time, but sometimes.
This cover? How could I not pick it up? It’s beautiful. Then I read the blurb on the back and I hesitated. Picking books is a process for me, and I wasn’t sure it was was ideal (emotionally-speaking) at the time. Fourteen-year old June has just lost her uncle, the person who understands her most in the world, to AIDS. It’s 1987 and her family is making every attempt not to discuss the disease and what it means; that includes the man outside the funeral home who is not allowed to attend. I put the book back on the shelf.
I kept thinking about it, though. I looked at it again a few weeks later; a few weeks after that I bought it. It went to live with its unread friends on the top of my bookshelf until I read Elizabeth Naranjo’s Reading Challenge update, where she called it her favorite novel of the challenge so far. The next day I picked up and and began to read.
The book is Carol Rifka Brunt’s debut novel. I mention that now because you won’t believe it after reading the book. The writing is so beautiful. I was completely absorbed–well, as absorbed as a mother with four children home for the summer can possibly be. The subject matter is heavy. The overarching story line isn’t happy, but there is happiness to be found within it. June struggles with the loss of her uncle, the relationship with her sister, and the realization that her parents have secrets, too. There is redemption and revelation and I thought it was perfectly presented from the vantage point of a fourteen-year old girl. I used to be one, so I feel qualified to say that.
There are some definite moments of discomfort for the reader, mostly the result of the sometimes awkward friendship forged by June and Toby. None of the characters are perfect, but for the most part, you can see their motivations. I felt like I understood June so well. She is on the cusp of something–growing up–and is struggling. She’s got a foot in both worlds, not feeling she belongs in either one. There is scene where she goes into the woods to play like she used to, but she finds she can’t anymore. I remember this feeling; I see my daughters feeling this.
I tried to pretend I was in the Middle Ages, but it didn’t work. Not the way it used to. Every time I got close, I’d think of something Toby said. Or a Trivial Pursuit question. Or a snatch of a lyric from a South Pacific song. It was like my brain had actually changed. Like some part of it, my favorite part, had died off.
Although the author didn’t intend the novel to be June’s coming-of-age story, it can’t help but be. It’s more than that, though. It’s the story of a friendship–one that’s built from grief and loneliness but becomes beautiful and heartbreaking. It was a tough story told amazingly well by Brunt, and I’m so glad I read it.