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Book Review: The Year We Left Home by Jean Thompson

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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.

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About Georganna Hancock

Retired San Diego publisher, journalist, freelance editor and writer, blogged almost daily for eight years at A WRITERS EDGE. She helped writers on the path to writing success with critiques, edits and publishing advice. Find her author page on Amazon and her tweets on Twitter, where she's aka @GLHancock. Georganna's first writing appeared in print in the 1960s. She worked as a journalist for many years. She reviewed books for the FORT PIERCE NEWS TRIBUNE and THE LOUISVILLE COURIER-JOURNAL and wrote for THE MIAMI HERALD, regional publications, and many national magazines. She was a member of the National Book Critics Circle, the San Diego Professional Editors Network and the San Diego Writers/Editors Guild, for which she served as Web Manager. Books reviewed may have been received as gifts. All her writings are protected by U.S. copyright law.
  • This sounds like an interesting read, and I will put it on my “must read” list.

  • Patricia A. Hawkenson

    Sounds remarkably like the parallel angst of my family. Nothing is more interesting than finding yourself in the pages of a novel.

  • Sounds like a book I could really sink my teeth into!

  • I already see some of my family in your review alone Geo. This sounds like my kind of reading, so on my reading list it goes. Thanks so much for the review!

  • Thank you, ladies, for visiting from Twitter and/or my blog, A Writer’s Edge. Your comment enters you all in the contest to win a free copy of the book reviewed, THE YEAR WE LEFT HOME. The contest ends at midnight (PT) Wednesday, May 4, 2011, so tell your friends to leave a comment, too, and maybe they will win the book and share it with you!

  • I forgot to say: this contest is limited to people with addresses in the U.S. Sorry, population of the rest of the world, but your comments will be welcome, too.

  • Yes, do know about the more things changing, the more they don’t.

    A review with a lot of meat to it! Makes me want to taste the story.

    Sorry. Guess I’m hungry.

  • The charcters in Jean Thompson’s new book sound relatable and incredibly human. I’m interested in how returning home with his tail between his legs when his career fails impacts Ryan and how Anita handles all the pressure. I also love that Audrey’s response to everything is to cook. “The Year We Left Home” sounds like a captivating story and one I certainly want to read!
    Thank you for a wonderful review!

  • Thank you, Marisa and Amy. Visits and comments from fellow/sister book reviewers make me happy and honored! Tell your friends they have until Wednesday, May 4, 2001 at midnight PDT to enter the contest for a free copy of this book. (You will NOT have to pay shipping and handling!)

  • This is definitely the type of book I enjoy reading and I’ll buy it even if I am not lucky enough to win it. This is yet another great book review by my twitter friend at Writer’s Edge. Thank you Georganna.

  • Thank you all for visiting from Twitter and/or my blog, “A Writer’s Edge.” Your comment enters you in the contest to win a free copy of the book reviewed, THE YEAR WE LEFT HOME. The contest ends at midnight (PT) Wednesday, May 4, 2011, so tell your friends to leave a comment, too, and maybe they will win the book and share it with you! Be sure to let me know your Twitter handle, so I can thank you there!

  • Jonathan Slaton

    Sounds like a fascinating book. I look forward to reading it.

  • The contest for a copy of the reviewed book THE YEAR WE LEFT HOME is now ended.

    And the lucky winner is *drum roll* Beth Allen aka @bburcroff on Twitter. Beth: please send me the name and address to send the book to.

    Thanks to all who participated, and I hope everyone reads and enjoys Jean Thompson’s enormously entertaining novel.