The Year We Left Home by Jean Thompson
Published by Simon & Schuster
Review copy provided by the publicist
The Year We Left Home chronicles the trials and tribulations of an Iowa family over three generations. Eldest daughter Anita is happy as can be on her wedding day, yet as the years go on she becomes increasingly dissatisfied with her husband and their marriage. Her younger brother Ryan, desperate to escape their hometown, moves far away and gets involved with some hippies. And their youngest sister, Torrie, is also dying to escape Iowa, and her drastic departure has huge consequences for everyone.
I didn’t realize that Jean Thompson is more of a short story writer than a novel writer when I accepted this book. But after finishing The Year We Left Home, I can see how her strengths in writing short stories really helped make this book into what it is. Rather than being a concise, flowing novel, this book is really a series of interconnected stories. They all fit together perfectly, and all combined they do create a novel, but the flow is more short story and less novel. Which I happen to enjoy quite a bit, so this is not a negative at all. It just makes the book a little different from your typical family saga type novel.
The biggest strength of this novel, I think, is the characters. Thompson writes fully realized, complex characters with tons of emotional baggage – the kinds of characters that the reader both wants to run from but also can completely relate to. Life is messy, people are messy. People do stupid things, people hurt the ones they love, people act without thinking. And Thompson’s characters do all of these things and because of that they feel like real people. Real people you probably wouldn’t want to be friends with, but real people just the same.
One thing that is difficult to handle in The Year We Left Home is that there is very little joy in the novel. Everyone in this book has a hard life, has made bad decisions and must face the consequences, has been hurt themselves, etc. So it’s hard, as a reader, to keep reading a book where so much of what it contains is sadness. Although the book has a stark, sad feeling, I personally was not bothered by that. It felt realistic to me and because of that, I could take the lack of joy. But be warned – there’s not a whole lot of happiness in this novel.
Also, it’s clear from reading this book that Thompson is a fantastic writer. She really gets into the heads of her characters, exploring their thoughts and emotions in exquisite detail, and her writing is a pleasure to take in. Her dialogue feels real and as I stated before, she creates characters that are completely believable. I would definitely recommend The Year We Left Home. It’s not a perfect book, but the excellent characters and beautiful writing make up for some of its shortfalls.