Tuesday, May 31, 2011

REVIEW: The Year We Left Home, by Jean Thompson

The Year We Left Home, by Jean Thompson. Published 2011 by Simon & Schuster. Literary Fiction.

"He's just an old soldier who needs a home," one character says about another towards the end of this extraordinary novel about how one Midwestern family weathers the last third of the 20th century, and really the phrase could be used to describe just about anyone in the Erickson family, on whom the book centers. The Year We Left Home starts with the wedding of Anita, the oldest daughter, to Jeff, an outsider in this extended Scandinavian Iowa farm family.  Her brother Ryan, disaffected, forms a friendship with his wayward cousin Chip, a loner newly returned from Vietnam. The chapters follow these characters and others through three generations.

There was so much about this book that I loved. Primarily it strikes me as a character-driven story and Thompson creates beautiful, fitting arcs for each of her characters. The endings aren't always happy or perfect, but she gives each character the right ending. Individual chapters read like interlinked short stories; by telling the stories of their lives from different points of view, we learn how these people think as well as how they see each other. The two characters who made the biggest impression on me were Chip, the alienated vet, and Torrie, his cousin who suffers a tragic accident that sends her in a direction no one anticipates. Thompson gives us only one chapter from Torrie's point of view then gradually fades her out until one of the two ends up creating a miracle for the other, and I ended up in tears.

But every character has his or her own moment of miracle. The Year We Left Home reminded me a little of a kind of Midwestern version of A.S. Byatt's character-driven family tapestry The Children's Book in the way that it shows richly drawn and colored people over time- the course of their lives, the way those courses are affected by larger forces and the way they interweave and affect each other. Ultimately the theme of The Year is that search for home and belonging and the different way these people grope their way towards it; the title could refer to any one of the chapters, any one of the transitions and turning points these characters take. In any case The Year We Left Home is a must-read and a beautiful, moving and rewarding example of American literary fiction.

Rating: BUY

FTC Disclosure: I received this book for review from the publisher.

14 comments:

Mystica said...

Thanks for this review on a book which I had not even read about before.

(Diane) Bibliophile By the Sea said...

Hope to get this one for the Kindle. Sounds like a fabulous read! Thanks for sharing.

Beth F said...

This has been on my list and now i think I should read it sooner than later. I bet I love it -- and not just because it's set in the Midwest.

Sandy Nawrot said...

I think that is all I needed to hear. It was on Entertainment Weekly's Must List too, which carries some weight as well. I love these finds!

JoAnn said...

There's nothing I love more than a good character-driven novel. This is definitely one for my list. Thanks!

Jenna (Literature and a Lens) said...

Sounds like an excellent read. I love when authors choose to give their characters the 'right' end instead of the expected clichéd one. Plus, strong character-driven literary fiction is always a draw for me. Great review.

Lynne Perednia said...

Thank you for reinforcing my decision to buy this novel. Your review also brings to mind another of my favorites, Plainsong.

bermudaonion said...

This sounds like a book I'd love.

Zibilee said...

I am going to be reading this one soon, and am rather excited about it after hearing your thoughts on it. I love a good character driven novel, and it sounds like this one excels in that particular regard. Great and enthusiastic review, Marie!

Kay said...

I'm reading some really good things about this book. Glad to hear your reactions as well. Off to see if I can get it at the library.

stacybuckeye said...

This looks excellent. This is the first I've seen of it and it's going on my wish list.

Kristin said...

Sounds very interesting. I loved The Children's Book, so you kind of sealed the deal for me with that reference. Have you ever read Sing Them Home by Stephanie Kallos? Also a great, character driven book set in the Midwest.

Kathleen said...

I cannot resist a really good character-driven novel. I love a book that follows characters through time too. This is one I will be adding to my list for sure.

Aths said...

I'm still kicking myself in the shins for missing the opportunity to read this book. It sounds amazing and fabulous, plus I totally enjoy character-driven novels.