Saturday, May 7, 2011

Book Review: "The Year We Left Home" by Jean Thompson

I'm always fascinated by novels that explore the dynamics of family, the good times and the frictions, the struggles that recur and the unspoken challenges that remain hidden, and how each member of a family deals with the same things. Jean Thompson's new novel, The Year We Left Home, is an interesting and well-written look at more than the 30 years in the life of the Erickson family, seen through the eyes of the matriarch, her four children, a distant cousin and one of her grandchildren. While the book doesn't necessarily explore earth-shattering issues and there are no shocking plot developments, I feel it aptly represents more than 95 percent of families—it's the everyday issues that challenge and test a family's strength.

The book opens in Grenada, Iowa in 1973. Anita, the oldest Erickson child, has just gotten married and can think of nothing more than a life raising a family in the town where she grew up. Meanwhile, her brother Ryan, just on the cusp of graduating from high school, watches the wedding reception from the sidelines and dreams of getting out of Grenada and making a life for himself far away from the clutches of his family. An encounter with his cousin, Chip, recently returned from Vietnam, lays the foundation for a sporadic relationship that has interesting ramifications throughout the book. Each chapter looks at a different character at a different point in time, as they deal with the different challenges life throws at them—good and bad. Some characters grow while others stay the same, much like life itself.

I enjoyed this book and definitely felt compelled to keep reading because I wanted to see how the story would unfold for all of the characters. As I mentioned earlier, nothing truly earth-shattering or surprising happens in the book, although there are some moments when I wondered how a situation would resolve itself. Some of the characters are more interesting than others, which makes some of the chapters less enjoyable, but on the whole, I felt as if I really got to know this family, and liked being part of their lives. A good read; perhaps not one that will knock your socks off, but Thompson is a terrific writer.

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