Following the success of The Love That Split the World, Emily Henry’s second YA novel, A Million Junes, also mixes magical realism with a familiar tale—in this case the story of star-crossed lovers—to create a truly original love story.
Eighteen-year-old June (short for Junior) O’Donnell knows that the O’Donnells and the Angerts of Five Fingers, Michigan, are sworn enemies. She just doesn’t know why. At first, she doesn’t much care, either. The hatred between the two clans is an accepted fact of her life, as are the ghostly spirits (the relatively benevolent “Feathers” and the more ominous “Nameless”) who occasionally visit members of her family. The same is true of the coywolves that occasionally emerge from the forest and make off with any O’Donnell shoes left lying around, and the floating white blobs that accumulate at the windows of her family home. There’s also a tree that appears and disappears, and a puzzling kind of reciprocity of tragedy between the O’Donnells and the Angerts: when one family suffers a loss or injury, the other one usually does as well.
These things are strange, yes, and mysterious, but so familiar as to be uninteresting to June. What changes her life from its predictable, if unusual, course is the reappearance in Five Fingers of Saul Angert after a three-year absence. From the moment of June’s first glimpse of him, the reader knows that this boy is going to win her heart: “I can only see his back,” June says when she first notes Saul’s presence at the local carnival. “He’s on the tallish side of average and the thinnish side too, but he somehow takes up more space than someone his size should.” The reader can also guess that Saul is an Angert, and that the teens’ inevitable romance will lead to Trouble with a capital T.
Sure enough, June and Saul meet cute in the carnival’s hall of mirrors, start a flirtation, and soon are heading into romance. Theirs is not just a physical attraction, although that element is certainly present. The two have much in common: memories of childhood (Five Fingers is a small town, and they have shared friends and experiences), a snarky sense of humor, tragic losses in their recent past (the deaths of June’s father and Saul’s sister), and especially a curiosity about the cause of their families’ enmity. As often happens in real life—and in the tales of Pyramus and Thisbe, Romeo and Juliet, Tony and Maria, and Matt and Luisa of The Fantasticks—the fact that their parents forbid them to socialize with each other adds the extra cachet of forbidden love.
A Million Junes isn’t strictly a tale of star-crossed lovers, though. June’s friendships and family relationships are important; her best friend, Hannah, especially provides loyalty and support as well as some comic relief (as do June’s younger half-brothers). And June has a refreshingly good relationship with her mother and her stepfather, Toddy.
The supernatural elements that surround June and the O’Donnells twist the tale into a different dimension as well. These happenings soon give way to visions of Hannah’s early childhood with her father, strange behavior on the part of the coywolves, and realizations about June’s and Saul’s families—both their ancestors and their current family life. Events and their own curiosity lead the two teenagers to a parallel universe, where they have a chance to put to rest both the feuding and the misfortunes that continue to befall the O’Donnells and the Angerts.
There are a few implausible elements here. It’s difficult to believe that no one in June’s family would figure out that the boy she says is her tutor, Mike, is actually Saul, and some readers may feel let down when they learn the inciting cause of the families’ mutual hatred. (While tragic, it hardly seems enough to cause generations of loathing.) But these are minor points. Thanks to well-drawn and sympathetic characters and the truly unique use of magical realism, A Million Junes cleverly recasts what could be a predictably well-worn story into an intriguing and enjoyable tale of family, loss, and love.
Tracy Barrett is a writer who lives in Nashville. Her most recent book for young readers, a retelling of little-known Greek myths entitled The Song of Orpheus: The Greatest Greek Myths You Never Heard, was published in 2016.
Tagged: Children & YA