Saturday, August 6, 2011

The Year We Left Home by Jean Thompson

I just received an email from the library that they have assumed I have lost this book as it was due back in late June. I've been holding on to it with the intention of writing a review. Book Blogging Fail. Now that I've acquired an immense amount of fines I need to actually write a review.

I absolutely loved this book. It had my favorite recipe: interesting family, unique settings and change over time. Even a month and a half later certain key scenes stick out in my mind. It is a story that will stay with you and keep you thinking about the characters long after you close the book (if you aren't using an e-reader of course).

The book is dedicated "to everybody who left home." And in that simple dedication, as in the evocative title, a bigger message is sent. This is a story about growing up, leaving a provincial world for a bigger one. It's about the dreams we give up on and the new ones chartered in the midst of the heavy sting of reality. It's about looking back and finally understanding that people weren't lying when they said: "when you are older you'll understand." It's about four siblings in Iowa with disparate dreams and ricocheting life paths. But the stories of these four siblings allow Thompson to ruminate on a plethora of topics: the drudgery of stay-at-home motherhood, the realities of marriage, the Vietnam War, the naivete of youth, Alcoholism and its effect on family members, post-partum depression, brain injuries, divorce, the move away from an agrarian society.

When I started reading about a wedding in Iowa in January 1973, I didn't envision that the book would span out to so many diverse locales and time periods. Like many family stories, the one at the center of this book is hard to predict and filled with ups and downs. There is a moment early on where I was truly devastated for one of the characters. She doesn't get the opportunity to leave home, at least not in the way she imagined (and she only leaves home much later). I found that the characters were incredibly flawed and human. I didn't always care for each one of them as a person, and yet I cared deeply about what would happen to them.

At the end of the book one the characters (a Vietnam vet who has never truly been alright since his service) says: "Why not, It's my goddamned country too." And then: "It's like family. No matter how fucked up it is, it's the only one you got." It's not a new sentiment. And yet the whole idea of savoring what you have (even if it is flawed) is such a central message of the novel. This is a human family with individuals who hurt each other, and disappoint one another, and find each other in places they never envisioned. And yet they carry on. And sometimes they even return home.

I know this is a book I will read again. Hopefully next time I won't accrue as many library fines!

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