by Carol Rifka Brunt; The Dial Press, 2012; 360 pages; $25
There’s a painting at the center of this tender novel of initiation. It is a portrait of two adolescent girls — sisters — a portrait that is emblematic of the relationship that is the heart of the novel: the relationship of love to the “maybe” of life. That is the magic of “Tell the Wolves I’m Home,” Carol Rivka Brunt’s poignant first novel.
June Elbus is the younger of the sisters in the painting. She’s in school in Westchester, just a train ride from New York City where her uncle, the celebrated painter Finn Weiss, had lived until his recent death from AIDS. It is 1987, and AIDS is still a disorder that is rarely spoken about. Finn’s death upends June’s comfortable existence, until she realizes that Finn has left her something else: someone who will make clear to her the precariousness of life along with the meaning of love, love not as she thought she understood it, but the way it really is.
June is reticent about life partly because of her more-favored sister Greta, the other half of the portrait left to them by Finn. June is the unconventional one. She affects wearing the tall boots her uncle indulges her in, along with the long skirts she favors, as she holds to the belief that medieval times are where her life should be lived. She is the one who imagines she hears wolves on her solitary walks in the woods near their home, wolves that are outcasts as much as June imagines she is.
Greta, on the other hand, seems to have her life in order. She will enter college in the fall, and presently is performing in her school’s production of “South Pacific” as Bloody Mary, a character she relates to more than anyone imagines. Because she seems to be in control of her life, she is left alone, by June, who is jealous, and by her accountant parents, who find tax season taking more time away from their family than it should.
Then, unexpectedly, a package addressed to June arrives from New York City. Inside is a beautiful teapot that Finn used to serve her when she visited his apartment. It is from Toby, Finn’s lover, a person who misses Finn as much as June. What being with Toby on secret trips into the city comes to teach June — and she relates all of this in a voice that is so clear, so true — is that she is not the only person to have loved, that she must make room for others to love her, and that she must face “all the jealousy and sadness. All the meanness that could come out of loving someone too much.”
June realizes that she is not being singled out by life. On the contrary, she understands better the way hopes often disappoint as much as they delight. She understands that others have made journeys similar to hers: her mother and sister, for example. And she comes to understand the need to accept love and pain as part of growing, because, as she admits near the end of this exquisitely rendered book, “I knew the way lost hopes could be dangerous, how they could turn a person into someone they never thought they’d be.”
That person is who Finn has caught in his painting of June and Greta. It is what Carol Rifka Brunt has caught in “Tell the Wolves I’m Home,” a book as spot-on about the pain and hope of adolescence as “The Catcher in the Rye” and “The Member of the Wedding.”
Steven Whitton is a professor of English at Jacksonville State University.