Monday, July 18, 2016

Tell the Wolves I'm Home by Carol Rifka Brunt and The Wonder Spot by Melissa Bank

Both Melissa Bank's The Wonder Spot and Carol Rifka Brunt's Tell the Wolves I'm Home are coming of age novels that follow women as they find their place in the world. Bank's novel does so over a 25 year span while Brunt follows her protagonist over the course of a very tumultuous few months, but both women emerge, like all protagonists, as new, more complete humans.

By late August, I’m on my second sublet, and I’ve been working as a copywriter long enough to know I’m not good at it. I seem to be reliving the life I had when I was twenty-two, but I’m about to run twenty-eight, which feels like the opposite of twenty-two.

The Wonder Spot was a fun, quick read. Each chapter puts us inside Sophie Applebaum's head a different stage of her life, starting with a Bat Mitzvah ("When I pulled [my mother's] wrist over to look at her watch and made a face that signified, I'm dying, she posed her mouth in a smile. Then she held my hand as though we were in love") and ending at party in Brooklyn in Sophie's 40s ("I tell him that a party in Brooklyn is a commitment. It takes effort. It's like a wedding: You can't just drop by."). The chapters in between are full of Sophie's attempts to find a man and a job, and packed with a cast of characters befitting a quirky rom com set in New York City.

The book had more of an edge than your average beach read romance; Sophie is smarter, funnier, and more sarcastic than your everyday heroine. Her sense of frustration with the world around her and her observations on life, first as a teenager and later as an adult, are cutting and astute: "Like most adults, my mother seemed to believe that a nearby birth date was kids required for instant friendship. I told her I hoped she got to sit with the other forty-one- and forty-two-year-olds."

There aren't any groundbreaking thoughts or hugely moving moments in the book, but it was just what I needed at the end of the school year when my brain was totally fried. It was smart enough to not feel too much like a guilty pleasure, but easy enough not to take too much work.

It seemed like life was a sort of narrowing tunnel. Right when you were born, the tunnel was huge. You could be anything. Then, like, the absolute second after you were born, the tunnel narrowed down to about half that size. You were a boy, and already it was certain you wouldn't be a mother and it was likely you wouldn't become a manicurist or a kindergarten teacher. Then you started to grow up and everything you did closed the tunnel in some more. You broke your arm climbing a tree and you ruled out being a baseball pitcher. You failed every math test you ever took and you canceled any hope of being a scientist. Like that. On and on through the years until you were stuck. You'd become a baker or a librarian or a bartender. Or an accountant. And there you were. I figured that on the day you died, the tunnel would be so narrow, you'd have squeezed yourself in with so many choices, that you just got squashed.

I love the opening sentences of novels, and for some reason I especially love the first sentences of dark coming of age novels. The opening of Carson McCullers' Member of the Wedding is one of my all time favorites, but the start of Tell the Wolves I'm Home is pretty damn good too: "My sister, Greta, and I were having our portrait painted by our uncle Finn that afternoon because he knew he was dying." From there, Brunt takes us through six months in the life of June Elbus, a delightfully strange and impressively insightful 15 year old. We follow June as she wrestles with the death of her uncle (whom she loved so much she worries that she may have been in love with), her estrangement from her gorgeous, talented sister, and a new taboo friendship with her uncle's lover whom her family blames for her uncle's death. 

June is by far the best part of the novel. She is is sad and lonely and odd--she spends hours wandering through the woods behind her high school pretending to be in the middle ages--and just off enough to make you frustrated with her from time to time and keep things interesting. I usually don't have patience for characters who wallow, but Brunt manages to make June grow just enough through her grief that her process is both believable and heartening. The lessons June learns throughout are tinged with enough sadness that it never feels saccharine or trite.

Often books centered around grieving can stagnate, the primary movement is internal, so there isn't space for too much action elsewhere. Brunt, however, keeps things moving; June builds new relationships, solves mysteries, and works to fit her new sense of the world into her pre-existing sense of her family. The book, like June, is constantly moving forward (or trying and sometimes failing to). There isn't just one central problem of grief to be resolved, but many interconnected problems; you care enough about June and about everyone else to care how they work out. 

Maybe the most interesting relationship in the book is between June and her overachieving sister, Greta. Greta comes across as truly horrid at the start. In one opening scene, she threatens to make June kiss their uncle (who has AIDS and whom June secretly may have feelings for) by dangling mistletoe above them, and she continues to terrorize June about her feelings for their uncle, even after his death. Then, as the story progresses, we see flashes of humanity and weakness from her, and June is left to reconcile her childhood memories of their close, loving relationship with the mess they have now. Greta is a little bit of a caricature of the hyper successful older sister, but the interactions between them feel real and genuinely painful. It also doesn't come to a neat, perfect conclusion, which I appreciate. 

I couldn't put this one down. It's sad and riveting and full of characters that are satisfyingly imperfect. The realizations June comes to feel real and relatable, and they give you hope for yourself, no matter how screwed up you feel at the time. 

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