It's the late 1980s in New York state and June Elbus' beloved Uncle Finn is dying of AIDS.
She's 14, unpopular, stubborn, a dreamer. While she plays in the woods behind her school, imagining she's in the Middle Ages, her beautiful older sister Greta is on her way to becoming a Broadway star. When Finn dies, June feels she's lost her best — and only — friend. As teenagers are wont to do, June struggles to see how the loss of Finn affects the rest of her family, focusing on her own despair entirely.
Quickly, it becomes clear that June's obsession with Finn crossed the border into romantic love, a fact that both repulses and consumes her. When a strange man from New York City, Toby, reaches out with gifts and messages from Finn, June befriends him with frighteningly little regard for her safety. She does this even as her family bills Toby as the man who "killed" Finn by giving him AIDS. The risks she takes to meet him would make any parent — or older sibling, for that matter — quake.
As June and Toby's friendship blossoms, it's tainted by her jealousy of his nine-year relationship with her uncle, of which she knew nothing. I love the way Brunt explored how a 14-year-old might try to hide her jealousy by resorting to nonchalance, all while thirsting for more details about the dead man's secret life.
I also took to the storyline involving 16-year-old Greta, perhaps because I come from a family of all girls. The sisters fight, they compete, they sabotage each other and, eventually they save each other. One is blind to the other's cry for help in a way that only a self-absorbed teenager could be.
The parents in this story are conveniently pushed out of the picture (Brunt made them accountants consumed by work during tax season), which makes June and Toby the main adult-child relationship in the book. Like June and Greta, their relationship is often tenuous but it's also, against the odds, touching and somewhat wonderful.