Friday, May 20, 2011

Review: The Year We Left Home

Summary: Over the course of a thirty-year career, Jean Thompson has been celebrated by critics as "a writer of extraordinary intelligence and sensitivity" (O, The Oprah Magazine), "an American Alice Munro" (The Wall Street Journal), and "one of our most lucid and insightful writers" (San Francisco Chronicle). Her peers have been no less vocal, from Jennifer Egan ("bracing . . . boldly unconventional") to David Sedaris ("if there are 'Jean Thompson characters,' they're us, and never have we been as articulate and worthy of compassion"). 

Now, in The Year We Left Home, Thompson brings together all of her talents to deliver the career-defining novel her admirers have been waiting for: a sweeping and emotionally powerful story of a single American family during the tumultuous final decades of the twentieth century. It begins in 1973 when the Erickson family of Grenada, Iowa, gathers for the wedding of their eldest daughter, Anita. Even as they celebrate, the fault lines in the family emerge. The bride wants nothing more than to raise a family in her hometown, while her brother Ryan watches restlessly from the sidelines, planning his escape. He is joined by their cousin Chip, an unpredictable, war-damaged loner who will show Ryan both the appeal and the perils of freedom. Torrie, the Ericksons' youngest daughter, is another rebel intent on escape, but the choices she makes will bring about a tragedy that leaves the entire family changed forever. 

Stretching from the early 1970s in the Iowa farmlands to suburban Chicago to the coast of contemporary Italy—and moving through the Vietnam War's aftermath, the farm crisis, the numerous economic boomsand busts—The Year We Left Home follows the Erickson siblings as they confront prosperity and heartbreak, setbacks and triumphs, and seek their place in a country whose only constant seems to be breathtaking change. Ambitious, richly told, and fiercely American, this is a vivid and moving meditation on our continual pursuit of happiness and an incisive exploration of the national character. -- Simon & Schuster

I first heard about THE YEAR WE LEFT HOME by Jean Thompson when I picked up my Entertainment Weekly a few weeks ago. They gave the book an A- rating which is pretty good for a book, and I usually find that their book recommendations are spot on for me. Plus, the book's description made me think this book would be right up my alley.

And it most definitely was. THE YEAR WE LEFT HOME was an outstanding novel and yet I'm finding that it's difficult to write this review. I thoroughly enjoyed the book and found it captivating, and yet it's kind of hard to summarize what happened. The book was filled with many quiet, almost uneventful moments -- rather like real life.

THE YEAR WE LEFT HOME is the story of the Erickson family -- a pretty normal American family from Iowa with a mother and father, two sons and two daughters. (And, there's also a strange cousin Chip who was somewhat damaged after fighting in the Vietnam War.) The novel covers about a 30 year time span including the end of the Vietnam War, the decline of farming, the rise and fall of the tech sector, and 9-11. The story is told through the eyes of six intriguing characters, and the reader gets a glimpse into the innermost workings of their personal lives -- from marriage, to infidelity, to divorce, to parenthood, to career changes, etc.

In many ways, I found THE YEAR WE LEFT HOME to be almost like a collection of inner-related short stories. Really, I think each chapter could stand-alone as a very strong story, yet the beauty of the novel was in how all of these family stories tied together. The chapters alternated between the different characters and covered events that occurred over much of their adult years. I think one of the things that made THE YEAR WE LEFT HOME so very special is that the lives of the Erickson family were basically normal -- just like my family's and friends' lives. In fact, it was the ordinariness of the characters and their actions that made this book so extraordinary in my mind.

Another truly wonderful thing about THE YEAR WE LEFT HOME were the characters. I found each and every character in this book (even the minor ones) to be so real -- they all resonated with me on some level. I was extremely impressed with how Ms. Thompson brought them to life and made me care so much about them (even the less likable ones.) And I surprised by how much I was drawn into and related to both the ups and downs of their lives, especially when each character first left the security of their home and family life.

While reading THE YEAR WE LEFT HOME, it quickly became evident that Ms. Thompson is an incredibly talented writer -- I mean truly gifted. Prior to this novel, I had never read a book written by Ms. Thompson before, and I have to wonder what rock I've been living under. Ms. Thompson's fiction is critically-acclaimed and she has even been a finalist for the National Book Award. I was blown away by the beauty of her prose and her exquisitely drawn characters, and I will certainly be adding some of her other works to my wish list.

THE YEAR WE LEFT HOME would make a perfect discussion book! I'm sure different characters will resonate differently with the individual members of your group, and I can only imagine how interesting it would be to discuss their lives and compare/contrast with your own family. There is a really good reading guide available with 17 questions that is sure to spark some discussion. Some of the topics you might want to discuss include family, marriage, parenthood, addiction, infidelity, new beginnings, tragedy, grief, loss, and the meaning of "home."

I treasured each and every page of THE YEAR WE LEFT HOME. It is a beautifully written novel that explores families, home, and happiness; and I think book clubs who appreciate literary fiction are going to love this book. I highly recommend it!

Thanks to the publisher for sending a copy of this novel.


Sandy Nawrot said...

I know, my brain makes a "bing" sound every time they give a book an A rating, plus they put it on their Must List. Your review definitely gave me a better idea of the book than their review though, so nice job. I really don't know if I will get to it, but I'm hoping I can.

bermudaonion said...

Connected short stories don't always work for me, but I've found they can knock my socks off when they're well written. This sounds fantastic!

Unknown said...

This sounds like a great book club pick. I need to start paying more attention to EW reviews! :)

rhapsodyinbooks said...

I agree with Sandy - EW is pretty good at reviewing!

Anonymous said...

I think this one sounds very good and for some reason reminds me of a Canadian book I read many years ago, A GOOD HOUSE by Bonnie Burnard. Not in the storyline, but in the type of book. About a family and their lives. Thanks for sharing! said...

I usually like most of the books EW rates well. I look at their reviews every week when my magazine arrives. Great review. I don't usually like collections of connected short stories, but sometimes they turn out to be okay.

Athira said...

I've been curious about this one when I heard of it last week. It truly sounds magnificent!

Dawn @ sheIsTooFondOfBooks said...

Your reading style/taste really is in line with Entertainment Weekly -- I remember a handful of books that you've raved about and mentioned that EW also gave high marks to.