Tell the Wolves I’m Home, Carol Rifka Brunt

OMG y’all. THIS BOOK. READ IT NOW.

It’s taken me a little while to spit this review out, because I feel like this is or will be one of those books that gets a lot of hype. I don’t want my review to become one of an avalanche of reviews that raves about a book, and then you are like, “Hey the people really love this book, Imma read it too,” and then you read it with your expectations sky high and when it doesn’t turn out to be the second coming of The Color Purple you’re like, “Why is everybody screaming about this book? It’s fine. It’s not that great. GOD.”

I don’t want that to happen because I think Tell the Wolves I’m Home is a lovely book, and I feel fond and protective of it. So I’m going to start by tempering your expectations. I want you to understand, though, that these criticisms made no difference to my enjoyment of the book, and I am saying them for your sake, to maximize the chances that you will enjoy this book when you read it, not because any of what I’m about to say interfered substantially with my enjoyment of the book. For it did not. But if you do wait to read the book, and you don’t like it, I don’t want you coming back here being like, “GOD could she be making more of an effort to remind us that wolves are a Theme?” Because I will already have warned you.

Tell the Wolves I’m Home is Carol Rifka Brunt’s first novel. It’s about a teenage girl called June in 1987 whose uncle Finn dies of AIDS shortly after painting a portrait of June with her sister Greta, once June’s closest friend and now something of an adversary. Bereft after losing Finn, the only person who ever seemed to understand her, June secretly befriends his long-time boyfriend, Toby.

Okay. Criticisms first. Raving afterwards. This is a first novel and there are some things. Some emotional beats get drummed a teensy bit too hard. There is a plotline about a guy at June’s school who constantly invites her to play Dungeons and Dragons. He seems nice and normal, which is unusual for a fictional portrayal of D&D players, but June never actually does play Dungeons and Dragons with him, and I’m not sure what the point of that was. There was also a lot of wolf imagery. Usually it was cool and effective, but there were times as the book went on that I wanted to ask Brunt gently to give us a break from it until the (I presumed) quiet, wrenching denouement, at which point I would permit its reintroduction.

(Then I checked the end to see if the denouement was quiet and wrenching. It was.)

What I’m saying is, no book is perfect, and this one isn’t either. There. I’ve inoculated you against that expectations thing. (Not really. There’s no vaccine for that although it would be great if there were.) Now I will say that I loved this book with all my heart. When I wasn’t reading it, I felt sort of bereft and wished I could be reading it; and when I was reading it, and had to stop reading it, I felt resentful. Finishing it made me sad, both because the denouement was, as previously mentioned, quiet and wrenching, but also because afterward I wanted to be able to keep reading it and I couldn’t.

Some of the reviews I read of this made it sound like it was a book about family tragedy and finding out secrets, but it really isn’t like that. There are secrets but they aren’t secrets about family scandal and betrayal, just secret hurt feelings, secret wishes to return to some previous, happier way of being. The scope of the book is small. Brunt is telling a lovely, specific story about family, and silence and absence, and how easily the space between people can widen and widen:

Greta went to high school and I was still in middle school. Greta had new friends and I started having Finn. Greta got prettier and I got…weirder. None of those things should have mattered, but I guess they did. I guess they were like water. Soft and harmless until enough time went by. Then all of a sudden you found yourself with the Grand Canyon on your hands.

Brunt has that knack for giving emotional heft to very small hurts and kindnesses. It’s hard to quote these because they’re all about the context, but I’m going to just quote from this one scene where Toby flicks a penny into the parking lot as June is leaving and tells her to check if it lands heads-up, because if it has he’ll have given her good luck. They are both reeling from the loss of Finn, and June is still not sure about Toby and mainly agrees to be around him because he is a connection to Finn, and they are both tentative and awkward and unsure of each other. But:

I knew you couldn’t make luck that way, but still I kind of hoped it was heads. I started to run to the spot, but even from a few feet away I could already see it was tails. I bent and picked up the penny anyway. Then I turned to Toby and gave him a smile and the thumbs-up. He didn’t need to know.

There are similar small moments between June and her older sister Greta. Some of the stuff about Greta being troubled is overdone and under-resolved, but everything about the two of them being sisters, and growing apart, and trying to get back to their former closeness through a thicket of hurt feelings and resentment, is just so sincere and lovely.

Oh, and there is all this business with the portrait Finn paints of Greta and June, that’s gorgeous gorgeous. And the end is perfect, and the denouement made me get all throat-achey. And Finn’s last letter to June made me cry several actual tears, which is pretty rare for me! And the title is one of my favorite titles for a book that I’ve encountered in a long time. I just loved this book, I loved it. The library copy on my Nook expired right after I finished reading it, and I wanted to check it right back out and read it all over again. Please get it and read it now, and then come back and tell me how much you loved it.

I read an interview with Lizzy Caplan recently where she said (of the group of friends in her movie The Bachelorette), “There’s something really amazing about being able to be as cruel as you’d be to your sister, to your friend.” I just — no! That’s not a thing! I deeply dislike that that’s the way family/friend relationships are often portrayed on TV and in movies, that you can just say whatever cruel horrible thing in the heat of the moment, but then afterward as long as you defend the person to outsiders, your loved ones know that you care about them and you are the best of besties. I disagree! Defending your loved ones to outsiders is easy and rare (and gives you a joyous feeling of moral clarity); being careful of them on all the regular days is tricky and confusing and every day. All of which soapboxiness is to say, I wanted to hug Carol Rifka Brunt for writing a book about how you have to be kind and careful of the people you love, that it is worth the effort to think about how your behavior affects them. Because when you don’t do that, you lose people. Tell the Wolves I’m Home is a book about how we lose people, and how we (sometimes) get them back.

I’d link to other reviews but I sort of don’t want you to read any other reviews because I am anxious that you should read this book first and reviews afterwards. Once you already love it and are no longer be susceptible to too-high expectations. So yes! Go forth and do so!

  • Expectatiosn successfully tempered, but you still make me want to shell out money for this one with your lovely, careful review.

    • You should! Because it’s a pretty amazing book.

  • What bookgazing said.

    And also: that quote about Bridesmaids made me think: why would you WANT to be cruel to your friends, much less your sisters? If I hurt someone I want it to be either entirely accidental (a complete error, for which there is a good explanation) or (much more rarely! Once every fifteen years!) entirely thought-out and deliberate. And in the latter case, NEVER to a sibling or a friend that I want to keep as a friend. Which is all of them.

    • I know! I sometimes want to say “Hey quit that annoying thing you do,” but I never want to say “YOU ARE THE WORST” in various ways until the other person is sad. Because that is mean! And then they would feel bad and I would feel bad! Nobody wins.

  • JoV

    This sounds really good, especially coming from you Jenny. I’m convinced that I have to read this now. Maybe I should buy it straight away. 🙂 Thanks for the review Jenny.

    • It really is a wonderful book, albeit one with some first-novel issues. I hope you do buy it, or at least get it from the library. I want everyone to love it.

  • You have certainly piqued my interest! I will look out for it.

    On a different note, did you know about Kidlitcon in NY next weekend? Are you going?

    • I did not know about Kidlitcon, and thus am probably not going to go. I think most likely it is sold out by now – isn’t that the one that has a fairly limited capacity, like 200 people or something? It looks cool, though, so I’ll have to pay attention for it next year.

  • I feel the same way. I actually don’t want my mom to read it, because it’s not her kind of book and I think she’ll think it’s slow and boring, but since I’ve read it and her BFF has read it, she has to read it too. She got kinda pissy when I tried to talk her out of it. I’ll probably get pissy when she tells me she didn’t like it.

    • Aw, what a shame. Did her BFF like it at least? And then you and the BFF can chat about it? I’m sort of sad I don’t have anyone to talk about it with.

  • farmlanebooks

    I read this book and loved it too. I’m actually surprised that it hasn’t had much hype around it. Hopefully word-of-mouth will spread soon as it is such a wonderful story.

    • I hope so too. I thought there would have been more reviews by now. Perhaps all my expectations-tempering was unnecessary. I shouldn’t have led with the negative stuff. I’m going to edit this review and make it more excited at the beginning.

  • Oh man, someone made a movie of The Bachelorette? I saw that on stage earlier this year, and those were some deeply unpleasant people. And it has nothing at all to do with anything representing actual friendship. I cannot express this strongly enough. Not friendship. At all.

    And the book sounds good. I don’t think I’d heard of it at all, so it seems to have escaped the hype (or I’ve escaped the hype about it).

    • Yeah, I’ve heard that all the characters are deeply deeply unpleasant. I think I’m leaning toward not seeing it, in spite of my great love for Lizzy Caplan and my desire for her to be more famous than she currently is.

      I think you’d really like this, Teresa! You should read it! You and Proper Jenny both!

      • I didn’t know who Lizzy Caplan was until consulting Wikipedia just now (and I’ve only seen a couple of things she was in), so she clearly does need to be more famous. If it’s any consolation, there are opportunities for very good acting in the script, so it could help her become more famous! I liked the acting in the stage version a lot, but the good acting made me hate the characters that much more. (Except the bride. She was awesome.)

  • You may have given a few criticisms of it but just saying that you loved this book makes me want to read it instantly. I’m adding it to my TBR list right now but I’ll try to keep my expectations in check 🙂 LOL!

  • Argh! OF COURSE I read this review the day after I institute TBR Rules again! (It seems I have 102 unread books floating around, plus fiction magazines and a couple of library books. That is too many.) I’ve added the book to my library list, though, and I shall read it as soon as la TBR reaches a managable size. In the meantime, I’ll avoid reviews and remind myself that the novel, while wonderful, has its flaws.

  • Okay, okay, I’ll read it! It’s checked out at the library, but I have it on hold 🙂

  • I’m listening, I’m listening 😛 *scribbles down title* I’ll keep in mind that it’s not perfect, but it does sound like a novel I’d love.

  • aartichapati

    What? Wolves and AIDS epidemic? How do they come together?

    I shall read this, even if it is flawed. Because I am awesome, too, but flawed, and that doesn’t mean people should avoid ME, right?

  • I have been seeing a number of really positive reviews of this one. Maybe I should put it on my to-read list and let it steep there for a while until I forget that it was so highly praised. Yes, that will be the plan.

  • Eva

    I’ve placed a hold on my library’s ebook copy! 🙂

    • I actually thought of you, specifically, when I read this book. I almost linked to you to be like, Eva! Read this! I really think you will like it a lot.

  • aartichapati

    I just read this one! It was lovely, I agree. I also agree with your comments about the unresolved stuff with Greta and D&D guy, but who cares?

  • This review was stellar – you had me by the first paragraph. I’m about 70 pages from finishing this book so I wanted to read a few reviews of it and damn, I don’t need to read anymore.

    I do really wish she would play D&D with Ben, but now I can get my anticipation over that out of the way. Thank you, thank you, thank you for writing.

    • Yay! I’m glad you are enjoying it. It’s one of my favorite books of 2012, maybe my absolute favorite, but people aren’t reading/reviewing it nearly as much as I expected.

      • You should google, “Tell the Wolves I’m Home WordPress,” and you’ll find so many! That’s how I found them all.