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.
This was one of those books that I heard a lot of buzz about, the story sounded interesting, but it was filed on my mental TBR under "yeah, one day". Then I had the luck of a family member gifting me a copy, so there it was in front of me... and yet, I still had it sitting on the shelves for months. It wasn't until I came across the Estella Project through the BookTube community, saw the book listed on this year's EP reading list, that I took it as a sign to go ahead and jump into this one already. I was SO pleasantly surprised by this one. I figured it would be good since I'd heard all the rave reviews but this is seriously one of the best books I've read this year. It hits on so many emotional elements of life, I found myself laughing and choking up all over the place!
June Elbus is a fourteen year old living in NYC in the 1980s, strongly attached to her uncle Finn, who is dying of AIDS. Finn is an artist who insists on painting a portrait of June and her sister Greta as a sort of goodbye / remember me memento.
"Junie," she said, "You need to understand some things about Finn." She turned her face away from me, then turned back. "I know how much you loved your uncle. And I did too. He was my baby brother. I loved him to pieces."
"Love, not loved. We can still love him."
My mother raised her head.
"Of course we can. You're right. But the thing about Finn is that he didn't always make the best choices. He did whatever he wanted, whenever he wanted. He didn't always..."
"Care what other people wanted him to do?"
"He didn't care what you wanted him to do."
"That's not the important thing. The important thing is to understand that Finn was a free spirit and a good man, but maybe sometimes he was a bit too trusting."
My mother said this kind of thing about Finn a lot. How he never grew up. She said it like it was a bad thing, but to me it was one of the very best things about him.
After Finn's passing, not only does June find special meanings hidden within the painting, but she also meets Toby, the boyfriend that Finn kept secret for so all of June's life, though she and Finn visited every weekend. Toby, through his stories, shows June a side of her uncle she never knew. Though she's not sure what to think of Toby at first (because her family labels him as "Finn's murderer") she grows to develop this beautifully honest friendship with him, realizing the prejudices Toby has had to battle, the way people judge him for being gay, poor, and wasting away from AIDS himself. Toby's experiences teach June just how unfair and painful people can be with each other, encouraging her to be the "change she wishes to see in the world", as it were.
I loved how much depth all the characters had (even if I didn't like them)!
I found myself identifying with June quite a bit -- she often feels like an awkward outsider in social situations, she's cautious and skeptical around new people but still tries to give them a chance anyway. She's also direct and doesn't like being put into a position where she may have to lie.
When I thought of that kiss. How I'd blushed after, like it meant something. When I thought of all that, it hit me right in the throat. Nothing had changed. I was the stupid one again, I was the girl who never understood who she was to people. I knew that Greta would be able to instantly transform whatever I said. It was like she was a master sculptor and my words were the ball of clay in her warm palm. A million possibilities waiting to be formed. I could say anything and Greta would turn it stupid and naive. My shoulders slumped, and I thought I might cry in front of Greta for the first time in years. There were all my secrets, spread out on the table. Like someone had taken my insides and scooped them out for everyone to see. Look, here at her stupid hopes! Look, here's her dumb soft heart!
Greta. June's older sister, seems mean and nasty at first, but over the course of the story, the reader finds Greta is actually hiding a good deal of pain, feelings she doesn't know how to process, so it comes out in her cutting words and rebellious behavior.
The one character in this book that I really didn't like (and per the author interview at the end of the book -- paperback edition -- I'm apparently not alone in these feelings) was June & Greta's mother. I didn't like how she thought it was okay to tell June "It's been a month, you've grieved long enough. I'm the one who lost a brother. I'm the one who should be a mess." I can't stand people who tell others how to grieve! There is no one way! That's not all. Greta, who is involved HS drama club & is being considered for a Broadway role, is guilted by her mother for even considering turning down the opportunity. Greta is flattered with the Broadway offer, but isn't sure stage is where she wants to make a profession. Her mother goes into this tirade about how she gave up her dreams to be a mother, she had plans to be an artist... blah, blah,blah... why do parents pull the parent-guilt card? I never understand that. And then there's the painting done by Finn of June & Greta, a painting that turns out to be worth big money. The mother never shows any sentimental interest in the work until big-wigs attach a hefty price tag to it, then suddenly it's a priceless family heirloom. I just didn't find much likeable about the woman. But I respect authors that can bring me to dislike a fictional person that much! Wait til you read about the ultimatum she gave Finn! **grumble, grumble, teeth gritting**
I think the hardest parts for me to read (most emotionally striking) were 1)Toby recalling his very last day with Finn 2) the scene where June and her family first learn about the drug AZT and
3) the letter Finn leaves for June in a book he leaves her.
Highly recommend this one. If you have it on your shelves, move it on up that immediate TBR!