Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
Release Date: June 19, 2012
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
Summary from Goodreads: 1987. There’s only one person who has ever truly understood fourteen-year-old June Elbus, and that’s her uncle, the renowned painter Finn Weiss. Shy at school and distant from her older sister, June can only be herself in Finn’s company; he is her godfather, confidant, and best friend. So when he dies, far too young, of a mysterious illness her mother can barely speak about, June’s world is turned upside down. But Finn’s death brings a surprise acquaintance into June’s life—someone who will help her to heal, and to question what she thinks she knows about Finn, her family, and even her own heart.
At Finn’s funeral, June notices a strange man lingering just beyond the crowd. A few days later, she receives a package in the mail. Inside is a beautiful teapot she recognizes from Finn’s apartment, and a note from Toby, the stranger, asking for an opportunity to meet. As the two begin to spend time together, June realizes she’s not the only one who misses Finn, and if she can bring herself to trust this unexpected friend, he just might be the one she needs the most.
First Thoughts: I’m not usually one for comparisons, but as I read this novel I couldn’t help but draw parallels to Harper Lee’s powerful classic, To Kill a Mockingbird. This story is a poignant, modern take on Lee’s coming-of-age story.
Let me start with why this is a 4 star, not 5 star book for me - it took me a little while to get into it. Once I was into the book? Wow! This is not an action-packed book. It’s not a conflict-driven plot. It’s simply a beautiful book about life told through incredibly real characters. It doesn’t have a happy heart-warming ending, necessarily; it’s just real life.
These complex characters are beyond real; this easily could be read as a memoir or piece of nonfiction. Because they are so real, they are extremely relatable. I found pieces of myself in June, and even in Greta, although I strongly disliked her for the majority of the novel. In June, I saw my strong sense of family and tradition. I don’t do well with change, and change sends June’s life into a tailspin. Although I hated (yes, hated) Greta for most of the story, I ended up completely understanding her. Growing up isn’t easy, especially when you’re the oldest. She wants to be older, she wants to be mature, and yet, she still wants to play invisible mermaids with her younger sister. I completely get that.
The characters, as individuals, are complex, but the relationships are really what make this story so poignant and powerful. As in life, there is a twisted web of relationships built on love, hate, secrets, and expectations. Although the sisters’ relationship drives the book, I found the most intrigue in the dynamics between Danni (the mother), Finn (the uncle), and Toby (the uncle’s boyfriend). The further the story went, the more layers that appeared. Even by the end of the book, I wasn’t sure how to feel about certain characters, but they definitely made me feel.
Obviously, this story is about the characters and their relationships, but it’s also a snapshot of our history - 1987 in NYC. I found it surreal to think about the panic AIDS caused. I was too young to experience the hysteria, anxiousness, and panic that the outbreak and publicizing of the disease caused, but it came through loud and clear in this novel. When you think about it 1987 isn’t that long ago, and yet, in reading this book, it seems like lifetimes ago. But has much changed? There’s still panic and misinformation. There’s still judgment and intolerance. There’s still sickness and death. As a country and as people, we’ve come a long way, but when you look at our current society, I strongly believe that we still have a long way to go.
Final Thoughts: This is a book you can’t help but feel. Whatever the feeling is - grief, love, loss, happiness - you will feel something as you read this book.
Who Should Read It? Although the book is told from a fourteen year-old’s perspective, I think this book is written for a more mature, older audience (it’s in the adult fiction section at the library). I think some young adult readers are ready for the book, but I would recommend it more to upperclassmen and adults. I actually think we should teach this book in place of, or alongside, To Kill a Mockingbird.