ElCicco #CBR4 Review #41: The Year We Left Home by Jean Thompson
Jean Thompson’s novel The Year We Left Home covers a 30-year span, from 1973 to 2003, and focuses on the siblings of one Iowa family — Anita, Ryan, Blake, and Torrie — and their cousin Chip, recently returned from Vietnam. Like many siblings, they have a sometimes combative relationship with each other and share many awkward pauses as they turn into adults, but they and their wandering cousin, as much as they might try to divorce themselves from their roots, find themselves coming back home and to each other.
Anita was the high school “queen bee” who married and had children young and then found herself dissatisfied with her her life and searching for more. Her husband Jeff is an alcoholic who works for the local bank foreclosing on family farms, including the farm of a close relative. Ryan is the jock and intellectual who goes off to college and spends a brief time as a graduate student before falling into the computer industry and getting rich. Blake is a quiet guy who is better with his hands and tools than with books, who marries, has kids, and never leaves town. Torrie has a strained relationship with her mother, battles bulimia, admires Ryan and has to live with a tragedy that significantly delays the realization of her dreams of independence. Chip, an oddball and loner before going to Vietnam, returns even moreso, and drifts in and out of Ryan’s life. They have a peculiar sort of friendship than can go for years without them seeing one another. Chip seems intent on staying away from Iowa and his family, and lives life moving from one town to the next. It’s not always clear how he supports himself, and he seems to barely get by. Chip has a good heart but has been through horrors only hinted at in the narrative that cause him to hold back from his family and home community.
Thompson’s characters are very realistic. I could imagine people I knew in place of almost every one of them. Of all the characters, I found Anita to be the most surprising. She seems self absorbed but turns out to be selfless and winds up helping others find homes or trying to save their homes for them. Chip for all his weirdness and dodgy activities (nearly getting Ryan shot; smashing up someone’s house during a party), also can be quite selfless and in tune with the emotional needs of others, in particular Elton and Torrie. Ryan is clueless with women and selfish, but gives generously to his family in the end, helping them settle when his own life is so unsettled. Torrie, who has the greatest desire but least capacity for independence for many years, is forced to stay home the longest, and grasps independence with both hands and refuses to let go when the opportunity comes along. Blake, a contractor who specializes in keeping houses in good working order, is a sort of quiet glue for his siblings, a binding point for them all.
The story line occurs in chronological but skips years at a time, so that reader learns about some events long after the fact. Each chapter follows one or two characters in specific relationship to each other. The Year We Left Home is a tale of 1970s stagnation, 1980s farm tragedies, the boom of 1990s and bust of early 2000s, with an overriding theme of alienation. Thompson’s characters try to figure out how their grandparents’ generation managed to create such good lives (appreciated only in retrospect,when the characters have reached adulthood) when it seems that the conditions in which they lived should have made them unhappy and burdened. They are all trying to find their way to a sense of home, connection and some kind of happiness. Thompson has created believable, flawed but likable characters and provides them with a well paced and well written narrative that avoids becoming maudlin, as it easily could have. An overall good read.