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Merle

Merle

Tell the Wolves I'm Home: A Novel - Carol Rifka Brunt I'm not usually into books about modern suburban Americans, but am glad I read this one--it's a strong character-driven book featuring complex personalities and relationships, and hey, it made me laugh and cry! Which is a total cliche in a review, but true.

It's 1987 and 14-year-old June Elbus's beloved uncle, Finn, has just died of AIDS, which was terribly misunderstood and frightening at the time. June is a weird kid who doesn't quite fit in with others her age, and considered Finn her best friend. Then at his funeral, she first glimpses Toby: Finn's partner, whom she never knew existed. June and Toby's growing friendship is at the center of this book, but we also spend a lot of time with June's family, particularly her talented older sister, Greta.

The characters really make this book, and I found them three-dimensional and believable. June feels authentic as a weird kid, obsessed with all things medieval; we can see how unusual she must look to others, while in her own head, she makes perfect sense. And the author does a great job showing the disconnect between what June, as the narrator, sees, and what's actually there. For all that June spends half the book telling us that Greta is mean and hates her, the reader can see far more interesting depths beyond that bit of teenage nastiness.

Most of the other characters are also excellent. Finn seems a bit idealized, but this makes sense from June's perspective. Toby, too, treads that line--even given the circumstances, his investment in being a good friend to this girl seems rather extraordinary--but redeems himself, for me, with his obliviousness about what's actually a good idea in a friendship with a teenager (this book is full of relationships that are emotionally good for people, but physically bad for them; Finn and Toby get AIDS, Toby teaches June to smoke, etc.). June's mother is also quite well-written, and Brunt really captures the dynamic between teenagers and their parents in a non-simplistic way (although the father, even when he appears, is nearly invisible). And even some of the minor characters, like June's D&D-playing potential love interest, stand out.

I've been discussing the characters rather than the plot, because the plot mostly consists of character interaction. I found it compelling, and Brunt's use of very short chapters helps keep its momentum. But the book does seem a bit overlong, with several scenes in the middle all serving the same purpose. A tighter 300 pages may have served this plot better than the 355 it has.

On the plus side, the dialogue feels realistic, and the writing is generally good. I was certainly never bored; the tension between characters kept me turning pages, but without becoming silly or melodramatic. I'd recommend this book even to those who don't normally read this sort of thing--and although it's getting classified as young adult in some quarters, it's as complex and realistic as I expect an adult book to be, and I hope it doesn't get sold short for that reason.