Two lines from the final paragraph of Michael Cunningham’s A Home at the End of the World come from the character Jonathan, who says, “I realized that if I died soon I would have known this, a connection with my life, its errors and cockeyed successes. . . . I would not die unfulfilled because I’d been here, right here and nowhere else.” These lines speak to the four characters whose narratives we follow, as, chapter by chapter, each separately tells us a part of the whole story.
The four characters whose narratives make up the book -, Bobby, Jonathan, Clare and Alice - are all searching for meaning. Bobby and Jonathan grow up in Cleveland in the 60s and 70s, the unhappy children of unhappy parents. They become friends in junior high and embark on an unusual friendship (Jonathan is gay, and while he and Bobby have a semi-sexual relationship, Bobby’s sexuality remains ambiguous). After graduation from high school, Jonathan heads to New York City, and Bobby remains behind, eventually moving in with Alice and Ned, Jonathan’s parents, when his own childhood home burns down.
Clare enters the story in the New York City of the 1980s. She and Jonathan are roommates, half in love and half seriously talking about having a baby together. When Alice and Ned move to Arizona, Bobby moves to NYC, and the three form an odd sort of love triangle: Bobby and Clare enter into a physical relationship and have a child, though the three decide to raise the child together as one family. No one single person can fulfill either of the other two, but they each depend quite strongly on both of the other two to help them define themselves in the world.
Alice’s narrative comes as a surprise in the story, which begins with chapters alternating in Bobby’s and Jonathan’s voices. But Alice’s voice is an important addition to the text; she is a complicated parent searching for meaning in her adult life at the same time the boys are growing up and becoming adults who continue their search for self.
This book also explores the nature of friendship and family, as well as the nature of home and love. The characters are vividly alive; they are also hard, frequently selfish, and as human as the rest of us. One characterization does not come fully alive until the end of the story: Erich, who is Jonathan’s lover in New York City. He remains an enigma until nearly the end of the story, when he retreats with Jonathan, Clare and Bobby to upstate New York when he is dying of AIDS. Also, the character of Bobby is, at times, frustratingly inscrutable. When seen through the eyes of the other characters, he seems almost dumb, a bit slow to catch on, but in his own narrative, the reader can feel there is so much more behind that quiet exterior. That can be frustrating, but it also helps make Bobby more real.
These characters are compelling and mysterious, confusing and understandable. Michael Cunningham makes Bobby, Clare, Jonathan, Alice and Erich both easy to relate to and difficult to fathom – normal, messed up human beings, just like us all.