Thursday, August 30, 2012

Tell the Wolves I'm Home

Many thanks to my friend Beth Conrad for her suggestion that I read this debut novel by Carol Rifka Brunt, a title that must have slipped under my radar screen though it's so evocative that you'd wonder how that could happen. Last weekend we here in Southwest Florida took only a glancing blow from the feeder bands of tropical storm Isaac resulting in a couple of lovely, windy, rainy days perfect for hunkering down with a new book.

Young, precocious protagonists seem to be the name of the game lately in all the quality new fiction I'm reading. June Elbus, the narrator of the Brunt book, represents a phase of every fourteen year old you've ever known - I am including myself here. Bookish, a loner, a thinker, a drama queen, an angst-filled kid with no one to talk to, she pins her hopes of being understood on her uncle and godfather, the renowned artist Finn Weiss.

Finn appreciates something special in June that neither her older sister Greta nor her parents, Finn's sister and brother-in-law, seem to get. It's the 1980's, the Elbus family lives a rather upscale existence in Westchester county where the parents are accountants and the kids are pretty much given free reign.
 Initially I had some difficulty imagining parents so oblivious to their kids' goings on but then I thought about my own childhood and the crazy things we got away with and, well.....

Uncle Finn is dying of a disease that no one will talk about. As a final gift to the family he has asked to paint a portrait of the girls and as a final gift to Finn, their mother Danni has agreed. Each Sunday they take the train into the city where Finn lives and has his studio and each Sunday June dies a little herself as she observes the changes in Finn as he wastes away from the illness that cannot be named.

There are so many themes running through this novel that I almost felt it detracted from the power of the book a bit. I suspect that Ms. Rifka Brunt had such a plethora of ideas running through her mind that she wanted to get them all down on paper in one fell swoop rather than wait for a second novel to emerge.

Sibling rivalry, a huge, understandable issue between the golden child Greta, the family performer who could be Broadway bound, and her darker, more introverted sister June, takes precedence over the more interesting subtext of the rivalry, envy, and resentment between Finn and his sister Danni, both artistic temperaments, Finn's fully developed and Danni's squelched for a more traditional path.

Secrets can be so damaging to relationships that families who keep them don't often fare too well. I know, as our family was close to the vest about so many fascinating aspects of our relatives' lives. They could have shared - we'd have gotten it!
The fact that AIDS was ravishing Finn, how that might have come about, and the existence of his long time companion and lover Toby, were only hinted at. June's understanding of the subject was learned through innuendo and half truths until she took the chance of meeting Toby and getting to know him for herself.

Love, in all of its permutations, becomes the saving grace for this family. How we love and who we love, the depth of our loyalty to our friends, partners, and family can make the difference between a life fully lived and an empty existence. This novel really intrigued me. Though I believe it may have benefited from some editing or paring down, I still recommend it as an example of the wonderful work coming from our young writers. We have much to look forward to as they take center stage.

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