Friday, June 3, 2016

Review: Three Junes

Three Junes Three Junes by Julia Glass
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Two general assertions here: 1) This is a beautifully written book, and 2) I did get distracted a couple times while reading it. This is good enough to warrant more undivided attention than I had for it, but you can only give what you have to give.

That aside, the heart of this three-part novel is stunning. The first section moved perhaps too quickly for me, and the third felt somewhat disconnected (more on that in a moment), but the lyrical second part is absolutely worth it. Glass writes with real ease, inviting you into her world with effective and efficient portraits. Her characters are all fully realized; whether she grants us access to their thoughts or simply has someone observe them, they all feel worthy of their place in the story.

Fenno, the closest we have to a protagonist, is a gentle and thoughtful man. Glass’s depiction of him, his hopes, and his disappointments is one of the most insightful explorations of homosexual love I have ever encountered. There’s nothing titillating, nothing particularly strange for someone with a heterosexual background; it’s just a beautiful rendering of a man’s yearnings and the way he has reconciled himself to the life he has found.

It may just be me, but Fenno reminds me somewhat of John Corrigan from Colum McCann’s Let the Great World Spin. Both are caught in the swirl of New York, and both cling not so much to tradition but to a decency they fear might be lost. Fenno is not quite so inspired, but he is wrestling with a similar dynamic in a quieter way. He finds comfort in the people he is able to help, and he finds a kind of love in the animals of his life – a feisty parrot and a dog his mother bred from a line of champions. And he makes a life for himself, giving support to his family, and establishing a book store that becomes an enduring part of the community.

I fear my lack of attention may have cost me most in the first section. We get a lot laid out, and, in particular, we meet Fern, who vanishes again until the third section. I confess I missed that connection, and it’s at the heart of my mild discontent with the final section.

As I read the first two sections, I found this a novel about family, about the ways we influence each other even as we pursue our separate lives. It’s jarring but effective to meet the family through their father’s eyes and then to explore it further through Fenno’s. We come to ask questions about the nature of family: who constitutes it? Is a “friend” family? Is Malachy, dying of AIDS and too sardonic for a full relationship, Fenno’s lover? His American brother? The full partner he never had? How is he closer to his American friends than to his Scottish family?

The book implies answers to all those questions, and that’s its real joy. So, when the third section moves not just from Fenno and the McLeods as a whole but to Fern, it’s disconcerting. I realize now that I missed Fern’s connection to Fenno’s father, but even so, I wanted the novel to deal more fully with the McLeod family dynamics as altered by Fenno’s agreeing to help his brother have children.

Glass is simply too skilled not to have a reason for what she’s doing, and I have come to think she is so challenging the notion of what “family” means that she is suggesting it can often turn on relationships its participants don’t even know. (Fenno never learns, for instance, that Fern knew his father.) There’s a lot to think about there, and I admire its ambition, but it leaves me thinking the novel may have taken a bit of a wrong turn as it came down the home stretch.

There’s still very much to recommend this, and I plan on getting to more of Glass’s work one of these months.

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