Reviewed by Melanie Cutting
Let me say right at the outset, I wish I’d written this book. Or, at least, I wish had the literary skills to have written this book. It has really been a while since I found myself turning the pages of such a satisfying and enjoyable novel. So, exactly who is Julia Glass, and why have I never heard of her? Ms. Glass, now 62, is an American novelist. Coming a little late to the game, Three Junes, published in 2002, was her debut novel. That year it won the National Book Award for Fiction, and became a bestseller. Since then, the author has produced five more works of fiction, including I See You Everywhere, winner of the Binghamton University John Gardner Fiction Book Award, and most recently, A House Among the Trees (2017). Why she is not better known is a mystery to me, because her very assured prose, especially her delineation of character, place and especially, food, is superb.
Three Junes is the story of the McLeod family, spanning the decade from 1989-99, with many stopovers in earlier years. Starting off in Scotland, the first of the novel’s three chapters (Collies, Upright, Boys – each set in the month of June) introduces us to paterfamilias Paul, recently widowed publisher of the Dumfies-Galloway newspaper founded by Paul’s father, and now on a restorative touring holiday in Greece. Through the generous use of flashbacks, we learn that Paul’s wife of many years, Maureen, the usually hale and hearty breeder and trainer of border collies, has succumbed to lung cancer, and the family has assembled at their home in the country outside of Prestwick for the funeral. We are introduced to Paul and Maureen’s three sons, Fenno and twins Dennis and David, now in their thirties, and their respective families. This first chapter, the shortest, is largely devoted to Paul’s experience in Greece, and the people he meets. One of these individuals, Fern, will play a small but vital role, and an even larger role in the third chapter of the book.
The second—and longest—chapter is devoted to eldest son Fenno’s life as an expat living and working in New York City. Again deftly utilizing the technique of flashing back to earlier points in his life, we initially meet Fenno in 1995 when he has returned home to Scotland for his father’s funeral. As he recalls earlier trips, the reader learns many things about Fenno, most notably that he is gay, a fact that had somehow eluded his father’s knowledge for most of his life. Fenno owns a successful Manhattan bookstore, Plume, dedicated to both literature and ornithology, with his friend and mentor, Ralph. This bleak period in America history, the height of the AIDS epidemic that was particularly devastating in major urban centres, has informed Fenno’s behavior: “Upright, I would tell myself as I savored the visual innuendos of a trimly mustached business student, as I pictured us falling together into my bed. Stay upright and you will stay alive.” A central player in this chapter (and in Fenno’s life), is his music critic friend Mal, short for Malachy. Mal is HIV positive, and periodically so ill that Fenno is often certain that he has come to the end; surprisingly, though, Mal is tougher than he looks, and still possessed of the sharpest tongue in N.Y.C.
Arranging Paul’s funeral, never the smoothest of activities, proves especially onerous for the McLeod brothers. David, an equine veterinarian, and his wife Lilian have remained psychologically and geographically the closest to Paul. David’s resentment of Fenno is palpable, and it all comes to a head as family secrets are let out of the closet, and jealousies on the part of both brothers threatens to ruin what is left of their relationship. Meanwhile, brother Dennis, his overbearing French wife Véronique and their three little girls, are caught up in the heady atmosphere at the family estate, as Dennis plays chef for the extravagant meal which forms the centrepiece of the funeral.
Chapter 3, although entitled “Boys”, reintroduces Fern, the free-spirited fellow tourist and artist who so captivated Paul 10 years earlier when both were participants on that excursion to Greece. Fern has been invited by her former lover, Tony,(also Fenno’s former lover!) to the Long Island beach house which, coincidentally, belongs to Fenno’s business partner Ralph. In due time, Fenno turns up with his dog, Rodgie, who has died and will now be buried on the grounds of the beach house. Yet another funeral forms an important element in Fenno’s life. However, the chapter belongs to Fern. The years since her time in Greece have not been kind, although she is now pregnant and tenuously encoupled with Stavros. The bond she strikes up with Fenno brings the story full circle, and the reader is left to imagine how their pasts, linked through Paul, will impact their future.
“Word alchemist Julia Glass weaves gold into straw into gold again in this novel that proves to us that neither ancient privileges nor modern passions absolve us from the regrets losses, comforts and ineffable joys of family love…Our only longing on finishing Three Junes is that we do not have four, because Julia Glass’s steady hand at our back is an uncommon pleasure.” National Book Award Fiction Judges, 2002.
I sincerely hope that Ms. Glass was able to get past the curse of an award-winning first novel and produce equally worthy books in the ensuing years. Her beautiful prose, highlighted by her accessible and astute use of literary techniques, humour and genuine sympathy and understanding of the human condition, recommend her as an author with whom I definitely hope to spend some more time.
Julia Glass is a Distinguished Writer in Residence at Emerson College. She lives with her family in Marblehead, Massachusetts.
This book is available at the Bibliothèque Lennoxville Library.