This is the second time I’m reading this book. The first time I read it (which I did at lightning speed – like I do for most books – because I don’t have the patience to endure the suspense of the ending), I thought all that the book had going for it was the plot and the characters – which is more than enough for me and which is everything that the blurb advertises.
My most grievous fault.
If you do a basic Google search about this book, you’ll come across numerous posts that have written odes to everything that’s beautiful about this book on the surface. The plot is set in the late 1980s, a time when America was in the grip of homophobia and AIDS was in the headlines all too often. It introduces to us a fourteen-year-old, who finds herself lost after her godfather, confidant, best friend, and uncle, Finn passes away. That’s also when she learns there’s a lot of Finn that she didn’t know about.
That’s not all. There’s Greta – the ace kid in the family – and once upon a time, together they used to be the Elbus girls. Then June learns that her mother – the boring accountant who, together with her accountant husband, orphans their kids during their tax season – has a past that June has trouble wrapping her head around.
And then there’s Toby. And then there’s Toby.
The book explores more issues than I thought it would. Apart from the obvious that you can glean from the blurb, it also delves into the realms of forbidden love and sibling estrangement. I actually had problems with June. I will not hide my initial disgust when I realized the nature of June’s feelings for her uncle. Nor my annoyance at how flippantly June mentions her newly acquired habit of smoking and occasional drinking. Nor my anger at her decision to accept the invitation to visit an apparent stranger and go places with him.
She does a lot of stupid things. Granted. But that’s also what I liked about the book. It isn’t trying to teach lessons about Stranger Danger or Smoking is Injurious to Health or Falling in Love with Relatives and this is not the book I would recommend as the solution to any of the above. Brunt neither condones nor condemns it – she merely talks about it. That is what struck me – you can’t detect the mature adult author acting as the conscience in the morally-compromised teenage narrator. Because there isn’t. It’s up to you to decide if that’s good or bad.
What I wasn’t prepared for was the imagery. Motifs like wolves, rain, butterflies, Mozart’s Requiem, trains, woods, a beautiful Russian teapot, and negative spaces in paintings show up now and then. I didn’t know that this book was a lot of work and is thus a prime candidate for book club discussions. I didn’t know that you had to read some lines twice and thrice to understand if there was a deeper meaning to what seems on the surface. There are some that you’ll miss if you blink like Finn’s chess set, or the painting Nurse Feeding Sick Man from the Book of Days.
Like I already mentioned, the characters are not whom they seem on the surface. There are layers upon layers on them. You would have peel them off slowly and carefully, to get a look at who they are underneath all of it. And underneath all of it, you'll find that they’re just people, not some characters in a book.
This book is work. But once you get to the end, you'll just remain curled up, hugging it to your chest.
VERDICT: 5 stars