Book review: A Million Junes, Emily Henry

This review is based upon a copy provided by the publisher. No other consideration was offered.

I was a little nervous about picking up A Million Junes because Emily Henry’s previous novel, The Love That Split the World, was, uh, kind of racist — drawing upon ancient and annoying tropes about Native Americans and not delving into the complex political history surrounding Native adoptees. I note that Henry dodged the issue this time by just making all the main characters white, which is a frequent and frustrating tactic taken by white writers who don’t want to engage with race, which is not a point in the book or Henry’s favour, but I wanted to attempt to give it a fair shake.

In A Million Junes, we have two warring families who have hated each other for so long that people have almost kind of forgotten why they’ve been fighting. Girl meets boy from wrong family, they fall in love, chaos ensues. It’s a story as old as time but it’s one for a reason — people seem to really enjoy the stakes of stories about star crossed lovers and desperately want to know how they’re going to sort it out and stay together in the end.

What interests me about this book isn’t the love story, but the fantasy elements. It might seem at first like a contemporary, but almost from the start, you learn that this is not how it’s going to work. There are strangenesses and happenings, weird balls of light that plunge people back into history and strange visions. The world around the characters is rising up, trying to teach them something about the past, attempting to break the cycle of vicious hatred between the feuding families.

And I think it’s done in a kind of fun way. June firmly believes in the magic that surrounds her family and she’s bought into it, but when her father died, her French mother maintained skepticism about the fantasy world. She remarried a nice, practical man and they had two nice, practical children, but June still feels haunted by the past, tangled in her grief and her memories and her firm belief that there’s something special about her house and her family. That’s only reinforced when things keep happening — things that she sees as evidence of the fact that her family is cursed.

I’ve been enjoying a lot of books lately where the reality of the fantasy elements is actually a subject of legitimate debate — where characters say they experience magic and things seem to be magical, but they could also not be. Characters could be living in a rich world of imagination. They could be mentally ill. They could be lying to the reader or each other. They could be describing situations in vague ways and letting you fill in the blanks – sure, yeah, if you want to think that’s magic, that’s fine. It could be magic.

That’s not the case here. The magic is very much alive and real, but what comes into question is the curse between the families. Is it actually ominous, heavy, dark magic that’s overshadowing their families, pulling their fates together in an intertwined mess? Is it? Or is it that things happen, because things always happen, and people are quick to attribute them to the curse rather than reality, especially when the curse makes a good story and something to blame? Do people die because it’s their time, or can you cope with grief and confusion and death by, say, blaming a death on something your neighbour did?

And what exactly are the origins of the curse? Did someone do something really terrible? But who? And what was it? Can anyone actually remember? This is where the story gets really interesting, pulling you through the different versions of the story from different people and forcing you to try to read between the lines. There are angry ghosts in this story, and there are memories that come to life, and there’s also a sense that people living in the real world need to eventually also face up to the fact that sometimes things just happen.

I’ve never been a fan of instalove narratives, which this definitely is — girl ensnared by boy’s intense, compelling beauty the first time they clap eyes on each other — but this is an interesting approach to star-crossed love, as I rarely get to dig into the origins of the feud that led to families to have such a confrontational relationship in the first place. I enjoyed having a chance to do that here, to inhabit the story more fully as a reader by interacting with the world the characters created for themselves.

I’d love to see more writers play with work that delves into the origins of family feuds, rather than just telling the story of what happens at the bitter end or showing the catalysing events at the very start with no future context. I love seeing characters in the now of whenever ‘now’ is who get to learn about how their family pasts inform their present, and I think Henry did a solid job of it here, pushing at what it means to be grieving and in love and alive and facing your past.

Image: Cherries, Orchard View Farm, Flickr