This heart-wrenching and eloquent book is one of the most moving books I’ve read in a long time.
Set in 1986 New YorkCity, it is a fictional memoir narrated by a 14-year-old girl, June, who loses her beloved Uncle Finn to AIDs. This was at the height of the AIDs epidemic, and at a time when no one know much about it; contagion was feared; and even palliative drugs had not yet been widely available. Moreover, there was still widespread antipathy for gays.
Not until late 1986 did U.S. Surgeon General C. Everett Koop release a 36-page report, discussing the nature of AIDS, its modes of transmission, risk factors for contracting the disease, and ways in which people could protect themselves, including use of condoms. In 1988, he sent an eight-page, condensed version of his report to every household in the U.S., the largest mailing in American history and the first time that the federal government provided explicit sex information to the public. (For those not familiar with the progression from HIV infection to the onset of AIDs, it is useful for this story to know that the incubation period can average between 8 and 10 years.) Meanwhile, in 1987, the FDA approved AZT, the first drug against HIV, although within another two years, certain strains of the disease had become resistant to it. Finally in the mid-1990‘s, a more effective treatment plan was developed, changing the status of AIDS in the U.S. from an epidemic to a chronic disease. Attitudes toward gays have similarly evolved.
June’s mother Danni (Finn’s sister) never accepted Finn’s “other” life, and insisted that Finn – June’s godfather – had to keep his long-time partner Toby a secret from June. Thus, although Finn and Toby had been together nine years, June never knew he existed, even though she went to Finn’s quite often. Toward the end, she and her older sister Greta visited almost every weekend so that Finn, an accomplished painter, could work on a portrait of them. But after Finn’s death, Toby is bereft, and reaches out to June – the only person he hopes will understand his loss. June’s journey to that understanding forms the core of this book.
Discussion: The writing is outstanding, turning meditations on dying and death and loss into sheer poetry:
He pushed himself up from the old blue chair he always painted in, wincing as he held on to it for a second, steadying himself. He took a step away and I could see that, other than the green tie at his waist, the only color Finn had was in the little splotches of paint all over his white smock. The colors of me and Greta. I felt like grabbing the paintbrush right out of his hand so I could color him in, paint him back to his old self.”
‘Greta,’ I said, ‘you know, it won’t be much longer. With Finn, I mean.’ I needed to make sure she understood the way I understood. My mother said it was like a cassette tape you could never rewind. But it was hard to remember you couldn’t rewind it while you were listening to it. And so you’d forget and fall into the music and listen and then, without you even knowing it, the tape would suddenly end.”
I understood how just about anything in the world could remind you of Finn. Trains, or New York City, or plants, or books, or soft sweet black-and-white cookies, or some guy in Central Park playing a polka on the harmonica and the violin at the same time. Things you’d never even seen with Finn could remind you of him, because he was the one person you’d want to show.”
June wants to get to know Toby: maybe he had anecdotes about Finn he could share:
My mother would call it scraping the bottom of the barrel. Looking for the very last crumbs. My mother would call it being greedy, but I didn’t care. If you think a story can be like a kind of cement, the sloppy kind that you put between bricks, the kind that looks like cake frosting before it dries hard, then maybe I thought it would be possible to use what Toby had to hold Finn together, to keep him here with me a little bit longer.”
June’s growing realization that “there was a kind of power in being needed” is actually one of the key themes of the book: the pain and resentment of those who don’t feel needed towards those who are needed. Not feeling needed can make you feel hurt and abandoned, and those feelings of sadness and desperation can be expressed by mean and vicious actions. And thus June discovers that jealousy, envy, and shame are also diseases that can kill you in a way.
Another theme is that of the “visibility” of what is not expressed. Finn, in his artistic way, was always trying to get June to understand negative space; to see what is there, but not there:
Negative space was kind of like constellations. The kind of thing that had to be brought to your attention.”
In the negative space of the portrait of the two girls, there is the head of a wolf, and the picture is called “Tell The Wolves I’m Home.” In time, June comes to fear that the wolves aren’t in the negative spaces at all, but that they live “in the dark forest of my heart.” That darkness comes to be represented for her by the dark, black buttons on her t-shirt in the portrait, buttons “like small eclipsed moons, floating over my heart.”
And there is this stunning epiphany June has: as she learns more about Finn’s history with Toby, and the changes that AIDS made to his life, she understands that she might never have gotten to know Toby, or for that matter, Finn, without the advent of the disease: “I thought how many small good things in the world might be resting on the shoulders of something terrible.”
Sibling relationships also play a large role in this story, and in fact, could be said to be the double helix upon which the body of the story is constructed. Intermixed is a coming-of-age theme.
Toward the end of the book, Greta waves goodbye to June, and June knew that “we were really saying goodbye to the girls we used to be. Girls who knew how to play invisible mermaids, who could run through dark aisles, pretending to save the world.”
Evaluation: This story will rip your heart out, especially if you remember these dark times, and all the people we lost to AIDs. But the book is oh-so-worth it. The story is memorable and the writing is luminous. Highly recommended!
Published by The Dial Press, an imprint of The Random House Publishing Group, a division of Random House, Inc., 2012
Note: This book, replete with issues still relevant for discussion, would make a fantastic book club selection.
Suggested soundtrack for this book: “I Dreamed A Dream” from Les Miserables (otherwise known as “The Tigers Come At Night” (but picture the tigers as wolves):
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