Any savvy reader would jump at the chance to receive a copy of a Jean Thompson novel, especially this one. The Year We Left Home is her first since 2005 and some consider it to be her definitive work in a 30-year career. It is definitely the polished writing of an author who knows what she’s about and the ways of her readers. She also has the intimate, inside view of families and human relationships in all their glorious confusions and collisions.
Readers are guaranteed to see their own families of origin in at least a few of the characters whose lives Thompson chronicles from the Viet Nam war years to the Iraq conflicts. She reveals the generational conflicts, too, and pinpoints the roles people fulfill in the social and emotional family dynamics. And the more things change, the more they stay the same.
Take Chip, the socially inept cousin who is further damaged by his experiences (actual and drug-induced) in Viet Nam. He struggles through the decades, trying to discover what it is that he is supposed to be doing in life. Whatever it is, his life comes full circle, winding up back in the small Iowa town in which the novel is set. The ways Thompson ties the characters together so seamlessly is nothing less than perfection. The story starts with Chip and his cousin Ryan getting high during Ryan’s sister’s wedding reception and ends with them taking over the farmhouse of the story’s oldest characters, by that time deceased.
And Ryan can’t wait to escape the stifling small Iowa town’s limitations, yet comes crawling back when his Chicago career and marriage tank. Nor can his sister Torrie stand the their conventional lives in the farm lands, but, sad to say, her wild ways cause a devastating blow to her dreams and chain her to home and mother, seemingly forever.
The bride Anita, however, aspires to no more than staying at home and raising a family, perhaps following the footsteps of her mother Audrey, who tries to fix anything wrong with her home-cooked food. But Anita is forced into the role of a big shot’s corporate wife (on a small town scale) and finds discontent and danger in the process. Left to cope with an alcoholic, she winds up working as a businesswoman.
Babies come, people die, and everyone learns that dreams and plans don’t always coincide with real life. Some of the twists turn out for the better and many are tragedies, large and small. Thompson has deftly captured the essence of Midwestern, middle American families living through the last third of the 20th century. Although readers know that life goes on, The Year We Left Home ends at a satisfying point in the saga of the Erickson family.
The reviewer copy of this book was provided by its publisher as a gift. The photo of Thompson, by Marion Ettlinger, was also provided by Simon & Schuster. The Year we Left Home will be available May 3, 2011.