Friday, July 8, 2011

Book Review: The Year We Left Home

Books are a major part of my life, so I figured it was about time to get some book reviews up on this here blog. If it seems like forever since I read a book it's probably because it has been. The last book I finished was Joyce Carol Oates's memoir, A Widow's Story, oh, a month and a half ago. I've been frequenting the library like old times lately, and along with movies like Country Strong, No Strings Attached, and It's Complicated, I picked up Jean Thompson's The Year We Left HomeI'd heard of her other books such as Do Not Deny Me and Throw Like a Girl, but I'd never read anything by her. (Shameful confession: I own Throw Like a Girl, an impulse used bookstore purchase, but have never so much as flipped it open.) TYWLH was on display on the New Books table at the Cambridge Public Library and because of it's interesting cover (so sue me!), I picked it up. Don't you love the lack of consequences when you impulse grab things at the library? Me too.

Thompson's novel is structured by year and character. Throughout the novel, we travel to different parts of the country, getting good clues as to the political and economic climate of the country as well as the family that the novel chronicles. Thompson is strongest when she's in the characters' minds. Each section is written in third person limited, and the outcome is beautiful. Set in a rural farmtown in Iowa, the story starts out in 1973, mostly between Ryan and his cousin Chip, recently returned from Vietnam. Their exchange in Ryan's truck, smoking weed, takes place as much in what Ryan doesn't say as in what the two do say to one another. This introduction to both characters sets up an understanding of the family they come from that is essential to the novel.

My favorite part about the novel's structure was the way it dipped in and out of each character's life, showed us glimpses that we return to later in the book, decades later. The first half of the novel's sections end cliffhanger style. There's a build-up of suspense that creates a sort of sigh of relief sensation when you realize you've reached the half of the book that ties up those loose endings. But there is nothing particularly neat about Thompson's ties. There are lives forever changed by tragedy that we get to see once the initial support of the community dies down and the family is left to fend for itself. We are not present for every character's trajectory of growth, and so it seems that it's the circumstances rather than the journey that Thompson wanted us to focus on. Once history begins, there is no changing it until you are on the other side of it, still alive.

I was pleasantly surprised by this book. I'm known around my parts as a sort of literature snob. The truth is, I'm picky. The secret is, I don't really have a rhyme or reason to my pickiness. Whether it's a cover or the author's overuse of ellipses, I'll stop reading a book I don't like, no matter the reason. We're not given too much time here on this earth, even less of it to spend reading without interruption. Why waste it on a book overrun with horrible similes? I'm so glad you agree.

I read TYWLH in less than two weeks, which means I only owed thirty cents in late fees (it was a Speed Read book that can only be checked out one week at a time). It also means that it's a quick and simple read. You won't lose your place if some guy gets on the train yelling about aliens or if your baby wakes up early from a nap. If you're anything like me, though, you will find yourself yearning for acres of land, farm animals, and reckless adventures. Which, you know, is great. 

Read any good books lately?

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