Friday, July 1, 2011

The Year We Left Home (Jean Thompson)

by Melanie Yarbrough

I've been frequenting the library like old times lately, and I picked up Jean Thompson's The Year We Left Home. She's written familiar books such as Do Not Deny Me and Throw Like a Girl. It was on display on the New Books table 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.

The Year We Left Home
by Jean Thompson

Story - 6.8
The story is basically centered around family. I enjoyed the way it stretched out, took on the shape of a tree, spreading in all different directions and winding back into itself. There are so many stories in this novel, but Thompson brings each of them back together nicely into one big story about one big family.

Style - 7.2
I'm a big fan of novels in stories, probably because I write stories and feel as though that style is my only chance to actually write a novel. I digress. Thompson doesn't focus on one character too much, and the third person limited of each section lends the perfect amount of distance and insight. I enjoyed seeing the family from all angles.

General - 7.5
I read this book fairly quickly, and that's usually how I judge if I'm really enjoying a book or not. I was eager to return to it, to sneak moments with it, to finish it. Each character is set up, tested in some way, and Thompson returns to each of them after they've moved past these times of trial. Whether they've changed for the better or worse after them, they are still together, still alive.

Overall - 7.2

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