Jamie's Reviews > The Year We Left Home

The Year We Left Home by Jean Thompson
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's review
May 08, 2011

really liked it
bookshelves: literary
Read from June 18 to 22, 2011

What do I want to say about this book? Huh. Some books you know immediately how you feel about them. Others, like this one, are fascinating and great while you're reading them and then when you finish you realize there's not much there there.

"The Year We Left Home" spans thirty years in the lives of the Erickson family of Iowa. The novel starts and ends with the second of the four Erickson kids, Ryan. He's the core of the book, and easily my favorite character, yet he is an early and lasting enigma. From the first chapter, in which he attends his older sister Anita's wedding, he comes off as an outsider to the family, though the reason why he's an outsider (he feels like he's smarter, above all of them) isn't really explained until a few chapters later. But to say that he feels above them is an easy way of describing it, because one thing Thompson does is show that it's not necessarily Ryan who feels that way, but his family projecting that onto him. Most people think that the kid who makes good is the one that parents will always be proudest of, but "The Year We Left Home" takes an interesting turn in that the family is suspicious and annoyed by his intelligence and success. More than once a character thinks about how Ryan is too smart for his own good, and for once a book really shows how that could in fact be possible.

If I'm not explaining the book very well, it's because it's not extraordinarily substantive. It spans thirty years, but it's a very small story. Still, I really loved it. I loved how each chapter would shift the focus of another member of the Erickson clan, and how initially I'd be bored with the chapter until Thompson drew me in and really made me feel for them. Anita, the oldest of the four kids, seems terribly dull from the beginning. By the end of the book, she's still dull, yet I cared about her. The other son, Blake, is completely absent except for a few mentions of his name throughout the entire book, and I started to think we wouldn't get to know him, until there's a Blake-centric chapter about 2/3s in that actually made me think very much of some of the men in my family. It's best to say as little as possible about the youngest, Torrie, only to say that the one truly Torrie-centric chapter makes what happens to her throughout the rest of the book feel more heartbreaking than I would have expected.

I could have done without the existence of the family's cousin Chip. His storyline didn't seem to fit in with the rest of the book, even though he's almost as regular a presence as Ryan. He seems like an obvious character.

Some of Thompson's imagery is breath-catchingly gorgeous. If I'll take anything away from the novel, it'll be the way that the small details really drew me in to these characters:

"He had an Israeli accent that sounded like fingers shoved down his throat."

"Light from the room behind her polished her thin bare arms."

"Sometimes she thought she was mostly a collection of minor talents."

As someone who's lived in Chicago for five years, the descriptions of the city were about as specific as any book I've ever read - specific in the small details, not in the naming of streets or the touristy things that most writers plug in as Chicago but in the way that people live. The descriptions of small town Iowa are determinedly Iowan but I could see them as universal to my hometown in Georgia.

Is this book going to change your life? No. Is it going to make you happy to have read it? Probably.
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06/20/2011 page 150

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Gail I just wrapped this one up. I love that one of the details I loved (the "minor talents" comment) is one of the ones that stuck out to you too. As a girl who grew up surrounded by cornfields in Indiana, I could relate to so much of its storyline. Perhaps that's what I loved it so much.

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