In Kate Atkinson’s Started Early, Took My Dog:l, disparate characters…
You know who doesn’t get enough time in modern literature? The geeky, Mozart-loving, fan of the olden days. The girl who slips into the gunne sack in the woods for some old-timey pretend. The 14-year-old girl in too large black boots who adores her artist uncle, who has AIDS and is dying. Oh well. More Junie Elbus-esue characters for Carol Rifka Brunt, whose novel Tell the Wolves I’m Home stars this character.
June has an extra special relationship with her uncle/godfather Finn, a chattered-about artist who has been out of the limelight for years. They have a whole list of favorite places and a secret hand squeeze signal language. They’ve been spending Sundays together for years. Now he has AIDS and is dying and in his final act as an artist, he is painting a portrait of June and her older limelight magnant sister Greta. When Finn dies, the boyfriend he never told June about starts popping up. Word in the Elbus family is that Toby is a murderer. He infected Finn. He distracted Finn from his art. He’s a criminal.
June starts meeting with him on the sly, skeptically at first. He woos her with gifts, facts about Finn and a letter written by Finn before he died asking June to watch over Toby. Eventually the walls come down and this unlikely duo forge a friendship, much of it spent weeping all over each other. June starts to learn that there were things about Finn she didn’t know. At least half of the things in his apartment that she associated with him actually belonged to Toby. And sometimes she sees pieces of her uncle filtered through his longtime lover. She also learns that the relationship between her mother and Finn as complicated and full of harbored hurt feelings. Not everything is the way she imagined.
Back at home, Greta is nearing graduation and has developed a booze-for-breakfast level of self-destruction. They have the prickly relationship of people who used to be best friends and wouldn’t be opposed to getting back to that place, but pride and misunderstandings get in the way. Their parents, accountants, are consumed by tax season which gives Greta time to pass out in a boozy reverie beneath a tree in the woods behind the school and which gives June time to sneak into New York City to smoke cigarettes and hang out with Toby.
There is so much to love about this story, starting with June at such an interesting place in her life: Age 14. She’s got a black boot in the world of pretend while the hazy world around her is starting to define itself. She’s got so many secrets and she’s developing bravery and independence. She’s also mourning in a way that the rest of her family either isn’t or is masking and she’s in a position where she’s got more mourning on her horizon. By 1989, her entire world will be different and she’s planting the seeds of those new traits. Her relationship with Greta is either about to completely sever or get glued together forever. And Toby makes an interesting catalyst for change. He’s a stranger she believes terrible things about and one of her first acts of growth will be to discern for herself what is true.
Plus, this is an interesting portrait of AIDS in 1987 and what it looked like face-to-face, versus what it looked like as presented by the media. In an early scene, Greta hangs a mistletoe between Finn and June to see how June will respond to this moment.
I’m 100 percent behind Jodi’s review. In fact, when she recommended that I read it she did so in a way that makes me think she could totally perform target advertising voodoo on me. It was something like “Know how Ready Player One wasn’t the 80s as you remember it? This is.” She was totally right.