Monday, June 20, 2011

The Year We Left Home by Jean Thompson (review #128)

Author: Jean Thompson
Genre: Fiction
Publisher: Simon and Schuster
Format: Review Copy

Description from Publisher Website:
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.

A deep sigh came over me when I opened up this package. It was the novel I was in the mood for. No, I wasn't waiting specifically for this one but I was struggling for my next read and this fit the mood that I was in. I had come across this novel last month while shelving at my bookstore job. I was intrigued with the cover and with the Midwestern setting. There is something bleak yet hopeful about stories set in the Midwest, a pulse that beats in the honest, hard-working folks that live in those parts. I come from the Midwest and spent all of my life, minus one year, living there.
I grew up in a large, country family with Norwegian roots much like the family in this book. I knew I would be able to identify with the lives of the characters created by Jean Thompson.

The novel is set in a small Iowa town and starts in the early 1970s and ends in 2003. The characters are members of one family but focusing mostly on the children; Ryan, Anita,Torrie and Blake. Weaving in between their stories you gets bit and pieces of their parents and their Aunts and Uncles. The story starts out in the voice of Ryan, begrudgingly a guest at his sister Anita's wedding. The season is winter and the year is 1973. Ryan has that odd feeling of lonliness and doesn't care to be at his sister's wedding, opting to hang out and get high with his cousin Chip instead. Next chapter leads us to a few years later, still in the voice of Ryan, bringing home his girlfriend Janine to meet his family. This is when you meet the rest of the characters that fill the remainder of the book.

Anita; the beautiful sister who marries an alcoholic, Blake; the son on the sidelines who has a large family of his own, Torrie; the youngest who recklessness changes the course of her future and Chip; the cousin who always keeps them guessing.

A little disjointed to begin with, I had a slight feeling of uncertainty with where it was all going. Each chapter, though the characters remain familiar, the time period changes and the feel of it all changes, much like years passing in life. Once I started to get a sense for the evolution of the family and some of my questions started to get answered, I felt the pace of the book carry me along. Thompson is a clever writer, almost letting it all slip by but then catching you in the middle.
I've mentioned before that it takes a talented writer to give a new voice to each chapter and Thompson nails it towards the middle of the book.

So many of these characters I felt I have known in my life; the sturdy, faithful Norwegian family members that quietly work their butts off, the wounded Vets who meander through the world and back to their home towns still feeling outside it all, the restless young girls of big families who just want to run, and the smart boys who feel they have change to bring with their
minds full of politics. I identified also with the mother of this family; somberly watching her family grow, grow away, grow big and unhappy in it all.

I had a few post it notes lining my pages that mentioned certain things that were either so small town Midwest or just so very 1970s. I put a post it note in the section about the crisis of American small town farmers (which affected my grandpa), the cheesy poetry of Rod Mckuen (my best friend's mother LOVED him), celebrating weddings at the American Legion (um..almost all of the weddings I've ever been too) and getting high in the middle of fields with your cousins (I'm not going to lie to you but my brothers were little shits when they were young).

This book left me with such pained warmth, one that comes from the pang of nostalgia, the good and the bad memories. It was a journey to read and delicately put together. It still had the fractured feeling of life and when it ended, you get a mild sense of coming full circle.
Thompson did a remarkable job capturing the feel of a Midwestern family.

Rating: 5/6
I was so glad I read this. Though unsure in the beginning, I am glad I plugged away with it because once I hit the middle it was no going back. It was as if I was turning pages in a scrapbook of a family long gone. I had to continue to read the fate of these characters.

Book Club Pick?
I think this would be a marvelous book club pick. It captures so many slices of life not just in location but in time periods of a person's life; the moving on, the mid-life, the what now?
It covers marriage, war, politics, infidelity. I think there would be plenty to discuss.
Here is a Reading Group Guide from the publisher's website.

Author Website:

Happy Reading and as always, thanks for stopping by!

red headed book child


Michelle Stockard Miller said...

I wondered about this one. Sounds like one I need to keep my eye out for based on your recommendation. Great review, Michelle!

CailinMarie said...

loved this post. excellent review and know I want to suggest it to my book club-

Alexis @ Reflections of a Bookaholic said...

There is just something about books like this that just hit the spot. I'll be looking for this one.

Anonymous said...

Did we grow up in the same Midwest town? I have the same memories as you except I still have my mom's Rod Mckuen books - I can't seem to bring myself to bet rid of them. I haven't read this book yet, but it is sitting on my nightstand beckoning.

Misha said...

I have been interested in the book for quite a while and yours is the first review I've read. It's great that you were able to connect to the characters which is very important to me.
Thanks for the wonderful review!

Jenny Girl said...

What a lovley review. It seems you really connected with this book maybe more so than you thought. I love it when that happens :)

Marce said...

This sounded like the perfect read for you and it touched you personally, great stuff.

BTW - Just finished my 1st Marcus Sakey, definitely will try Amateurs as you recommended.

Tales of Whimsy said...

Great review. I love when I connect with a book.

Holly (2 Kids and Tired) said...

Wow. This one sounds really good. I've kind of had it on my radar but wasn't too sure. Your review makes me want to read it.
2 Kids and Tired Books