Review: 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. Ana! Jill! Chris! (among others)

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!