Friday, April 15, 2011

The Year We Left Home by Jean Thompson

Ah, the Midwest. One has notions of the Midwest that the characters in this novel try to disabuse one of all the way through, but in fact, it's pretty much the way I imagined it: overgrown family farms gone to ruin; empty, neglected storefronts on main streets; young kids dying to get out. This novel follows an extended family through the 1960s to the new millenium, and isn't lavish with descriptions of beauty or of success or even of happiness. But the author does treat us to moments of transcendence: Norman and Martha dancing at a wedding, and Martha again, dying, stopping her niece from leaving her side. One gets the sense, as the characters age, that this is pretty much the way it is, for all of us, wherever we are: tension, struggle, outcome. Some outcomes are good; some not so good.

Moments of revelation and consequence are scattered through the novel like a hilly drive. One feels a ratcheting of tension and a concentration in focus, requiring a held breath to get us through. A headstrong young girl, determined to pain her parents, drives carelessly away from a funeral; a graduate student teaching a course invites a student to his house for dinner; a wife attends an AA meeting and brings another co-dependent home; a trip to Italy turns surreal. After, we turn our eyes and our thoughts to another character's life to catch our breath. These hills and valleys seem familiar, and when the book winds down we feel we could have been looking through the album of our lives: "Have you heard from so-and-so lately? I heard (s)he'd..."

You can buy this book here: Shop Indie Bookstores

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