I’m just now catching up on some delayed reviews of four books that I read over the past month. Today I want to comment on Three Junes by Julia Glass, winner of the National Book Award for Fiction in 2002.
What a superb and totally rewarding novel this proved to be. While a review that I had read made the book sound appealing, it far surpassed my expectations. I absolutely loved it and since I myself am struggling with writing a first novel I was in awe that this was the author’s debut effort. The book is not one to be rushed; rather it is best enjoyed by a slower pace of reading to savor the author’s great gift of storytelling, and what a gift she has. Three Junes is actually a literary triptych, with overlapping characters in each of the three stories. The book’s title refers to events that happen in the month of June, 1989, 1995 and 1999. Each story focuses on people dealing with grief and loss and trying to survive after having their hearts broken. Through effective use of flashback we learn much about the lives of the three main characters and those who are close to them. The first and last stories are told from the third person POV. The middle story is narrated by the book’s main character, a young man named Fenno.
The opening story “Collies” focuses on Paul McLeod, an older recently widowed Scotsman who is trying to put some sense back in his life while vacationing in Greece, six months after his wife’s death. While there he becomes infatuated with a young American female artist named Fern. Even though the two never become sexually intimate Paul is able to envision a brighter future for himself as a result of their encounter. This story’s title is a reference to Paul’s wife Maureen who devoted her life to the breeding and raising of border collies. Through a series of flashbacks we learn much about Paul and Maureen’s relationship with one another and with their three sons. “Collies” won the 1999 Pirate’s Alley Faulkner Society Medal for Best Novella.
The second story “Upright” is by far the longest and most moving of the three stories. It focuses on the life of Paul’s oldest son Fenno who is gay and is now living in Greenwich Village where he owns a popular and successful independent bookstore. Though openly gay, Fenno continually struggles with fully accepting his sexuality and is terrified of contracting AIDS. The title “Upright” is in fact a reference to this fear and Fenno’s constant reminder to himself; “stay upright and you will stay alive.” While living in New York he develops a very close platonic relationship with a flamboyant music critic named Mal, struggling to survive while living with AIDS. The bond between the two men is poignant and is the most engaging of any of the relationships in the novel. Fenno also has an ongoing sexually satisfying but emotionally unrewarding relationship with a photographer named Tony; the relationship eventually results in Fenno being painfully humiliated by Tony’s chicanery. All of this we learn through flashbacks since the setting of the story is the family home in Scotland where Fenno has gathered with his two younger brothers and their wives following the death of their father. During the visit Fenno is asked to make an important decision which if he agrees to do will dramatically change his life forever. While I felt that the author did an excellent job in drawing the reader into each of the three stories, “Upright” is by far the most endearing and interesting.
The final section “Boys” takes place in the Hamptons, where Tony, Fenno’s ex-boyfriend, is house-sitting. Sharing the house with him is Fern the young artist first introduced in “Collies”. She is dealing with feelings of guilt from the recent accidental death of her husband with whom she had become estranged shortly before his death. Fern has recently learned that she is pregnant and is struggling with how to let the father of the child know. At the invitation of Tony, Fenno comes for a weekend visit. Even though Fenno and Fern never realize the link they share through Fenno’s father Paul, they nonetheless enjoy each other’s company and a bond soon develops between the two. While I felt this was the weakest of the three stories it nonetheless was well written and provided a satisfying conclusion to the book.
If one is looking for a fast-paced action novel, this is not the book to read. But for anyone interested in a character-intensive, beautifully nuanced literary novel this book is almost certain to please. This was clearly one of the best books I have read this year. I fully intend to read more of Julia Glass’ work since she clearly is a masterful storyteller.