The family mansion at the heart of Miranda Beverly-Whittemore’s June doesn’t just have character—it is one.
“Houses don’t always dream,” Beverly-Whittemore writes at the beginning of chapter one. “In fact, most don’t. But once again, Two Oaks was dreaming of the girls—the one called June, who looked like a woman, and the one called Lindie, who looked like a boy.”
When oil baron Lemon Gray Neely broke ground on Two Oaks in 1895, the people of rural St. Jude, Ohio had never seen anything like it—its yellow bricks, its grand ballroom, its porte-cochère. Lemon lived there with his support staff, his widowed cousin, and her beautiful 18-year-old daughter, June, who was often found in the company of her closest friend, Lemon’s accountant’s 14-year-old daughter, Lindie.
In 1955, Two Oaks served as the venue for a Hollywood movie wrap party; Erie Canal, starring heartthrob Jack Montgomery, filmed in downtown St. Jude. But by 2015, the house is a sad shambles with a sole occupant. Cassandra “Cassie” Danvers, a grieving, lonesome 24-year-old artist, who recently inherited the house from June, her late grandmother, who raised her after her parents died in a car crash.
“I always feel like with every book I have a secret sentence about what the book is about,” says Beverly-Whittemore, the New York Times bestselling author of Bittersweet (2014). “With [June], I felt like the book is about an empty house that was once full that wants to be full again. When I realized that, it became really clear what belonged in the story and what didn’t. Every scene is about either its movement towards being emptied out or its movement towards filling up again.”
June begins with a stunning interruption of Cassie’s solitude: movie star Tate Montgomery, Jack Montgomery’s daughter, wants to know why her recently deceased father named Cassie as his heir. She blows into Ohio like an electrical storm with an entourage, demanding Cassie take a DNA test to disprove the speculation that the two may be related.
Cassie, who has no earthly idea what Tate is talking about, rightly senses the imbroglio has something to do with her grandmother. But when she asks the town historian, Mr. Abernathy, about June and Jack Montgomery, she gets little satisfaction:
“ ‘I don’t know what happened,’ he said. ‘That’s the problem. People die and your chance to ask goes with them,’ ” Beverly-Whittemore writes.
“Cassie’s heart flipped at his wisdom,” she writes. “It was tragic and cruel and true. She was furious at herself for losing the chance to ask June about Arthur and Jack, to find out what it had been like to lose her only child, Adelbert, in the accident, or how she’d felt about moving down to Columbus to raise her only grandchild. Cassie would never hear from June about losing her father in a foreign war, or watching her mother auction off their things. Or what Two Oaks had been like when June was a girl, or Mr. Neely. All of it was gone.”
June, whose chapters alternate between 2015 and 1955,is a deftly woven story of love, deception, moviemaking, and murder with a propulsive plot belying philosophical underpinnings. Throughout, Beverly-Whittemore grapples with the nature of art, celebrity culture, queerness, and family secrets.
“I grew up with both grandmothers in my life...and both of them were very private about things,” she says. “I think the Greatest Generation, that generation that went through the war, really valued privacy, and what I think is so interesting about secrets is they can be so seemingly damaging and vital to the people keeping them, and then those people die and the secrets become completely irrelevant. We all have secrets in our families—illegitimacy, rape, all kinds of things that none of us knows—and they cease to matter when the people involved pass.”
Secrets make June the novel’s most enigmatic character, but it’s much easier to empathize with Cassie in her quest to uncover them.
“June was a very complicated and fun character to write,” Beverly-Whittemore says. “She’s kind of the hinge on which the book rests, but she’s a challenging person to love. She’s very judgmental, she’s very to-herself. She’s the person who’s content to stay and settle, and we don’t really want that in our fiction. We want that Cassie or Lindie character, who has to grapple with the choices [this person they love] has made.”
“That’s what it is to have family,” she says. “That’s what it is to love someone.”
Megan Labrise writes “Field Notes” and features for Kirkus Reviews.