I was recently culling my ridiculous and impossible ‘To Be Read’ list on GoodReads, removing books that I’d been vaguely interested in maybe one day reading and leaving only those that I was legitimately wanting to read. Michael Cunningham’s A Home at the End of the World was the first book on the newly revised TBR that my library had on the shelf, I remember adding it very soon after seeing and enjoying the film adaptation. A Home at the End of the World is an intimate, but heartbreaking, story of a close friendship between two young men in the 1970s and 1980s, and how they find and create belonging, love and family set through the 1970s and 1980s.
The two main characters are introduced at a young age, each living in Cleveland in the 1970s and having their idyllic childhood changed by a death in their families and shaped by the different types of grief each boy has to come to terms with in his formative years. Jonathan’s parents experience a miscarriage, altering the relationship between his parents and him, while Bobby’s adored older brother is involved in a terrible accident. The boys don’t cross paths until early adolescence, where they bond over drugs and music, and first third of the novel is highly evocative in its portrayal of childhood, adolescence and friendship. Throughout, the narrative switches between Bobby and Jonathan, and later Clare, and, somewhat unusually, Jonathan’s mother Alice. Having this parental perspective during the tumultuous and confused teenage years is an interesting addition, as we get some insight into how she is viewing, absorbing, involving herself and reacting to her son’s growing up.
Jonathan later moves to New York and continues to find and grow into himself. Bobby remains in Cleveland, living and becoming close with Jonathan’s parents. While in New York, Jonathan meets the older, somewhat damaged but still uniquely glamourous Clare and the two of them form a close friendship on the premise of having a baby together, despite Jonathan’s sexuality. When Bobby moves to the city, the three form a close knit non-traditional, but mostly happy family unit that has an element of underlying and unspoken tension. Bobby and Clare start a relationship, and eventually Clare falls pregnant with the child she always dreamed of, leaving Jonathan feeling like something of an outsider in his own ‘family.’
We’d hoped vaguely to fall in love but hadn’t worried much about it, because we’d thought we had all the time in the world. Love had seemed so final, and so dull–love was what ruined our parents. Love had delivered them to a life of mortgage payments and household repairs; to unglamorous jobs and the fluorescent aisles of a supermarket at two in the afternoon. We’d hoped for love of a different kind, love that knew and forgave our human frailty but did not miniaturize our grander ideas of ourselves. It sounds possible. If we didn’t rush or grab, if we didn’t panic, a love both challenging and nurturing might appear.
Despite the intense emotions at play here, the novel is almost unsentimental about how these characters fit in and interact with the world. The writing is spare, upfront and honest about feelings of helplessness, hopelessness, sadness and desire for more in an assured manner that never loses sight of the vulnerability of these people. Switching between the points of view of four major characters gives us a view into how confused these characters are, and how their self delusions make them human. There are many moments throughout A Home at the End of the World where the point of view narrative structure works to reveal that as close as these relationships appear to the outside world, they remain separate individuals with hidden aspects of their personalities and self that they refuse to show or share.
The novel is permeated with the intrusion of death, with the final third of the book taking place at Bobby, Clare and Jonathan’s house near Woodstock with their young daughter, where they come to care for one of Jonathan’s ex-lovers who is dying of AIDS. Where both Bobby and Jonathan had to deal with grief and death in their early childhoods, here the presence of mortality leads to self realization about themselves. Ultimately, the novel is about coming to term with one’s position in the world, forging meaning and belonging where one can, creating a family unit and finding love in a mostly indifferent world.