Jean Thompson’s The Year We Left Home

Unlike some of the previous novels I’ve reviewed in this blog, the description of this novel is fairly brief: it spans thirty years in the life of the Ericksons, a largely small-town Midwestern family, from 1973 to 2003. Weddings, children, leaving home, leaving your roots behind, deaths, traumas…it’s all here. The family may scatter to the four winds, to Seattle, Reno, Chicago and abroad, but they remain centered on the Iowa town where they began.

The book’s been reviewed ably elsewhere, so as with other Significant Literary Works, I’m not sure what I can add. I’ll try anyway.

On the plus side, Thompson’s characters do seem very real to me, particularly Torrie’s struggles to recover after a terrible car accident results in brain trauma and her parents’ worries about whether she’ll manage on her own after their passing. (She does.) I can sympathize with the farmers struggling to keep going in a world that no longer has much of a place for small family farms, and Anita, who begins the book with her marriage but ends up realizing that marriage and motherhood cannot serve as the dream to sustain her for the remainder of her life. On the minus, the short vignettes of the different characters’ progress through the years felt only choppy to me, and left me not quite able to connect with any one of the characters or situations. (I suspect this is a flaw in my own reading style more than in the author’s writing style.)

I have to admit that I’m not quite as crazy about this as I thought I was going to be. It’s nothing specific I can put my finger on–not bad characterization or poor plotting or bad editing or misguided underlying assumptions. Rather it’s the sort of self-conscious book that leaves me all too aware that I am Reading a Terribly Literary Tome…and therefore I can never quite lose myself in the actual book. It felt like a string of vignettes about the same family over the years, all collected into one binding, but none of which ever really concluded. I’m reminded of something an acquaintance said in high school: “Life has no plot!” When we looked at her quizzically, she elaborated: “It doesn’t have a convenient beginning, middle and end, like in books.” Having lived a few more decades, and read more than a few books since then, my classmate is absolutely right. Life does not end up packaged up with a neat little sparkly bow. In that sense, The Year We Left Home is indeed a neat slice of life novel. Unfortunately, I want endings in my novels.


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