The figurative painter turns her guilty pleasure into a rich debut novel
Among the many pleasures of Julia Glass' marvelous first novel, Three Junes, are the numerous small, brilliantly rendered moments—the gestures, objects and places—that suggest the larger dramas in the lives of the McLeod family. Such casual-seeming moments often have a painterly luminescence, which should surprise no one. Before she became a writer, Julia Glass was an accomplished figurative painter.
"Like the character Fern, I actually did have a fellowship to paint in Paris after I graduated from Yale," Glass says during a recent call to her home in New York's West Village. "I had always been a good writer, but I was concentrating on the visual arts. After college and after Paris, I came to New York like lots of young aspiring artists. I showed paintings in group shows and won some modest prizes. I supported myself as a copy editor for a magazine. Gradually I realized that I missed writing and I began to write stories. The funny thing is, I'd feel incredibly guilty about this. I'd come home from my copy-editing job and instead of working on some big painting, I'd feel drawn to working on a short story. It was as if I had some secret vice. Finally I decided, this is my life. I can do this if I want."
One of the first stories Glass wrote was "Souvenirs," which was loosely based on experiences she had on vacation in Greece in 1979 during her fellowship year. "It was a very formulaic, ingenue-abroad, loss-of-innocence story," she now says. It was never published.
Revisiting the story some years later, a "splinter of memory" of a "very sad-looking, very handsome older Englishman in his 60s" presented itself. "I had had only one brief conversation with him in which he explained that his wife had recently died. When I went back to the story, I thought this man is the really interesting character here." Since she knew almost nothing about England but did know something about Scotland (she'd vacationed with distant cousins in Dumfries during her teens), Glass made the story's central character, Paul McLeod, a Scottish newspaper publisher. The heroine of the original story morphed into Fern, a young artist who briefly tantalizes the grieving McLeod in Greece (and reappears in full in the final section of the novel). "Souvenirs" became "Collies," winner of the Pirate's Alley Faulkner Society medal for best novella, and, eventually, the opening section of Three Junes.
Told in three parts, each set in the month of June, each a variegated weave of past and present, the novel movingly explores love and loss and the emotional bonds among the McLeods—Paul and Maureen, oldest son Fenno, twin sons David and Dennis, and a surprisingly large constellation of people connected to them.
"It's a novel about many things," Glass says. "Relationships between adult siblings fascinate me. . . . I wanted there to be a reflection of the truism that every child in a given family has a different childhood. But I also really wanted it to be about how we live past heartbreak, heartbreak that we're never going to get over, heartbreak that will be stratified in our hearts forever. For each of these characters there is a loss that is in a way irredeemable, but also one that he or she can get through and live beyond in a full way."
Central to this overarching story of heartbreak and its aftermath is the narrative of Fenno McLeod, an articulate, emotionally reserved gay man who goes to New York to study literature and stays to open a bookstore in the West Village. Fenno forms an extraordinary friendship with a witty, acerbic music critic named Malachy Burns who is dying of AIDS.
"Fenno was the kind of character I'd read about but had never experienced before, where a character gets up and starts to live his or her life pretty autonomously, while you're madly trying to keep up," Glass says. "I'd walk my at-that-time one-year-old along Bank Street to his babysitter, and I'd have this experience where I just sort of saw Fenno's life in this part of New York. Then on these walks back and forth with my baby in the stroller, I began to hear his voice, and I started to write part two of the book."
Glass also remained interested in the character of Fern, and she eventually began writing a third section to the novel. "Not having gone to school in fiction-writing, I probably broke a lot of rules without even knowing it," she says. "I never took a creative writing class, and I actually took very few literature classes, considering how much I love reading. I've been a bookworm since the minute I could read. But I love to savor books, read them very slowly. It drove me nuts that you have to take these courses where you read the great books in a week. I can't read that way."
Glass thinks of her novel as triptych rather than a trilogy, similar in form to "the altar pieces that I loved so much when I was studying art. You'd have a momentous central religious image and, to either side, images of the patrons who paid for the altar piece facing in toward this rich, very complicated, colorful central image. . . . I think of this as being Fenno's story flanked by the stories of these two other characters' stories seen in profile."
Of the novel's final section, in which Fern connects with Fenno, and Fenno revises his relationship with his brother Dennis, Glass says, "Early on while I was working on Three Junes I had a series of personal crises in my own life that could have paralyzed me. I reached a point where I realized that time doesn't heal all wounds, that there are tragedies that we carry around forever. But I am essentially a hopeful person. I didn't want it to seem glib or pasted on, but I did want this book to have a happy ending, and in my mind it does."
Alden Mudge writes from Oakland, California. Copyright 2002 BookPage Reviews
BookPage Reviews 2003 June
Focusing on three summers in the life of the McLeod clan, this impressive debut novel explores the significance of family and the meaning of love in the modern world. Through a trio of central characters—Scottish widower Paul McLeod; his son, Fenno, a gay bookstore proprietor who lives in New York; and Fern, a pregnant artist—Glass demonstrates the delicacy of human relationships, bringing the threesome together and apart in a complex narrative that unfolds over the course of a decade. Glass writes with wisdom and compassion as each of her characters comes to terms with the past. With locations as diverse as Greece, Scotland and Manhattan, she demonstrates a wonderful command of setting and detail. This much-praised novel won the 2002 National Book Award and was a national bestseller. A reading group guide is available in print and online at www.anchorbooks.com. Copyright 2003 BookPage Reviews
Kirkus Reviews 2002 April #1
Readers may be reminded of Evelyn Waugh and, especially, Angus Wilson by the rich characterizations and narrative sweep that grace this fine debut about three summers in-and surrounding-the lives of a prominent and prosperous Scottish family.Recently widowed Paul MacLeod languishes through a guided tour of Greece in 1989, buoyed by a hopeful, not-quite-romantic relationship with a Daisy Miller-like American artist. This sequence is a rich blend of carefully juxtaposed present action and extended flashbacks to Paul's youth and wartime service, management of his family's highly successful newspaper, and conflicted marriage to the woman whom he adored and who was probably unfaithful to him. The second "summer" (of 1995) brings Paul's gay eldest son Fenno home from New York City (where he co-owns a small bookstore) for his father's burial, and his own roiling memories of compromised relationships with his two brothers and their families and with former lovers and mentors. Fenno's account of what he wryly calls "a life of chiaroscuro-or scuroscuro: between one kind of darkness and another" is the best thing here. The third summer, of 1999, focuses on Fern, the artist Paul had briefly encountered during his Grecian junket. Glass deftly sketches in Fern's history of romantic and marital disappointments (she seems to be fatally attracted to men who are gay, bisexual, self-destructive, or just plain undependable) as well as present confusions (she's living with Fenno's former lover). But the manner in which Fern is coincidentally re-connected with the surviving MacLeods is both ingeniously skillful and just a tad too contrived. Glass makes it all work, though the parts are not uniformly credible or compelling.Nevertheless, a rather formidable debut. The traditional novel of social relations is very much alive in Three Junes. Virginia Woolf and Elizabeth Bowen, among other exemplars, would surely approve. Copyright Kirkus 2002 Kirkus/BPI Communications.All rights reserved
Library Journal Reviews 2002 January #1
A big author tour is planned for this first novel about a Scottish family, told over three successive summers. Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal Reviews 2002 May #1
This strong and memorable debut novel draws the reader deeply into the lives of several central characters during three separate Junes spanning ten years. At the story's onset, Scotsman Paul McLeod, the father of three grown sons, is newly widowed and on a group tour of the Greek islands as he reminisces about how he met and married his deceased wife and created their family. Next, in the book's longest section, we see the world through the eyes of Paul's eldest son, Fenno, a gay man transplanted to New York City and owner of a small bookstore, who learns lessons about love and loss that allow him to grow in unexpected ways. And finally there is Fern, an artist and book designer whom Paul met on his trip to Greece several years earlier. She is now a young widow, pregnant and also living in New York City, who must make sense of her own past and present to be able to move forward in her life. In this novel, expectations and revelations collide in startling ways. Alternately joyful and sad, this exploration of modern relationships and the families people both inherit or create for themselves is highly recommended for all fiction collections. Maureen Neville, Trenton P.L., NJ Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
Publishers Weekly Reviews 2002 March #4
The artful construction of this seductive novel and the mature, compassionate wisdom permeating it would be impressive for a seasoned writer, but it's all the more remarkable in a debut. This narrative of the McLeod family during three vital summers is rich with implications about the bonds and stresses of kin and friendship, the ache of loneliness and the cautious tendrils of renewal blossoming in unexpected ways. Glass depicts the mysterious twists of fate and cosmic (but unobtrusive) coincidences that bring people together, and the self-doubts and lack of communication that can keep them apart, in three fluidly connected sections in which characters interact over a decade. These people are entirely at home in their beautifully detailed settings Greece, rural Scotland, Greenwich Village and the Hamptons and are fully dimensional in their moments of both frailty and grace. Paul McLeod, the reticent Scots widower introduced in the first section, is the father of Fenno, the central character of the middle section, who is a reserved, self-protective gay bookstore owner in Manhattan; both have dealings with the third section's searching young artist, Fern Olitsky, whose guilt in the wake of her husband's death leaves her longing for and fearful of beginning anew. Other characters are memorably individualistic: an acerbic music critic dying of AIDS, Fenno's emotionally elusive mother, his sibling twins and their wives, and his insouciant lover among them. In this dazzling portrait of family life, Glass establishes her literary credentials with ingenuity and panache. Agent, Gail Hochman. 7-city author tour. (May 10) Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.