Jean Thompson's The Year We Left Home is a melancholy love-letter to America told through the eyes of the dysfunctional Erickson clan, specifically the children: unhappily married Anita, rebellious teenager Torrie, and Ryan, who's desperate to escape the rural abyss of Grenada, Iowa. There's also cousin Chip, who roams around the world to forget the horrors of Vietnam. From 1973 to 2003, the flawed Ericksons navigate wars, changing political climates, the '80s farming crisis, personal tragedies, and disillusionment over the "American dream."
Award-winning narrator Cassandra Campbell (who has lent her voice to everything from Kathryn Stockett's The Help to David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas) brings her warm, assuring style to Thompson's prose. Campbell's voice is reminiscent of actress Dana Delaney, while her narrating style is subtle and conversational. With a half-dozen characters to juggle, the easiest route might be to find different voices for each one, but Campbell smartly uses slight tonal shifts – a hint of gruffness for Chip and Ryan, for instance – rather than hit the listener over the head with caricatures. The consistency of Campbell's narration is strong from the first chapter to the last, even as the Erickson family unravels and reunites over the decades.
While much of the novel centers on Ryan's progression from hippie to teacher to computer software designer, it's war-addled Chip and wild-child Torrie who are the most finely drawn. Campbell hits her stride narrating Torrie's near-fatal car accident and emergence from brain-damaged teen to keen-eyed photographer. Campbell's stoner voice for Chip evolves into one of a man whose memories of Vietnam unfurl in cinematic bursts, but with vital missing frames. "Home's the place where, when you show up, they have to take you in," Chip says when he finally returns to Iowa, which over the course of the novel becomes a microcosm of the late 20th century American experience. Collin Kelley
From National Book Award–finalist Jean Thompson comes a mesmerizing, decades-spanning saga of one ordinary American family - proud, flawed, hopeful - whose story simultaneously captures the turbulent history of the country at large.
In The Year We Left Home, Thompson brings together all of her talents to deliver the career-defining novel her admirers have been waiting for: a sweeping and emotionally powerful story of a single American family during the tumultuous final decades of the twentieth century. It begins in 1973 when the Erickson family of Grenada, Iowa, gathers for the wedding of their eldest daughter, Anita. Even as they celebrate, the fault lines in the family emerge. The bride wants nothing more than to raise a family in her hometown, while her brother Ryan watches restlessly from the sidelines, planning his escape. He is joined by their cousin Chip, an unpredictable, war-damaged loner who will show Ryan both the appeal and the perils of freedom. Torrie, the Ericksons’ youngest daughter, is another rebel intent on escape, but the choices she makes will bring about a tragedy that leaves the entire family changed forever.
Stretching from the early 1970s in the Iowa farmlands to suburban Chicago to the coast of contemporary Italy - and moving through the Vietnam War’s aftermath, the farm crisis, the numerous economic booms and busts - The Year We Left Home follows the Erickson siblings as they confront prosperity and heartbreak, setbacks and triumphs, and seek their place in a country whose only constant seems to be breathtaking change. Ambitious, richly told, and fiercely American, this is a vivid and moving meditation on our continual pursuit of happiness and an incisive exploration of the national character.
Jean Thompson is the author of Who Do You Love: Stories, a 1999 National Book Award finalist for fiction; City Boy; and Wide Blue Yonder, a New York Times Notable Book and Chicago Tribune Best Fiction selection for 2002. She lives in Urbana, Illinois.
©2011 Jean Thompson (P)2011 Blackstone Audio, Inc.
“Jean Thompson writes with both sensitivity and intelligence, from a place of deep compassion for her characters and the world in which they live.” (O, The Oprah Magazine)
As there is only one other review written for this book by someone who didn't like it, I'm giving this five stars because I DID love it and it deserves more readers. I suggest that those of you who enjoy emotionally intelligent, historically wise, politically aware and psychologically astute well-crafted fiction (I'm thinking Elizabeth Strout, Anne Tyler, Mary Gordon, Allegra Goodman, Ayelet Waldman, Adam Haslett, Jennifer Haigh, or Jennifer Vanderbas) will find this as moving as I did. All the positive reviews on Amazon and elsewhere captured my reactions: I cared about the family, these people, and the way it rendered the experiences of multiple members of an Iowa family who, like all of us, change over time ??? partly because of our own natures, partly because of accident, and partly because of where we fit into the cultural/political zeitgeist. This novel captures the effects of two wars, the destruction of old farming families, the tech boom, and the real estate boom on a number of characters. It's not heavy-handed in its politics, but it doesn't ignore politics either. I could have gone on listening, and felt sad when this novel came to an end. Cassandra Campbell's narration was perfect. Highly recommended!
Say something about yourself!
Loved this book--great story--only part that did not 'make it' for me was the description of one character's trip to Italy--think the author could omit this part--narrator did a great job.
This novel is about real people (dysfunctional as Easterners) from the heartland of America. It is well-written and narrated
Maybe someone from Iowa.
Advent by James Treadwell
Chip, the cousin
This was the most depressing story I have ever listened to. I couldn't wait for it to be over.
It was also boring - nothing ever happened.
This is not a plot driven book which is perhaps why others are so critical. It is a journey through the lives of others. It is about the profound changes the country experienced between the early 70s and now. In particular it touches on the catastrophic effects the economy had on mid-western farms in the 80s, about the catastrophic impact the Vietnam War had on those who served, about the impact of technology on us all. But above all else it is about family and rebellion and love and growing up and learning to manage regardless of the hand you've been dealt. It is about leaving home without home leaving you.
The characters are ordinary people living pretty pedestrian lives with the same kind of struggles we all have and Jean Thompson does a masterful job of letting you in to see the world through the character's eyes and hearts.
The story was interesting, but listening to so many voices read by one narrator grew confusing and a bit tiring. The reader seemed to overly dramatize some of the characters (the mother, esp.). Didn't hold my attention.
I bought this because the book received very good reviews. I'm very disappointed in both the book and the reader. I stopped listening after about a third, so take my comments in that context. The book seems quite mundane, with many stereotypical characters and cliches. It felt somewhat like a young adult problem novel from the 80's. It's possible I would have liked the book more if I had read, not listened to it. The reader mispronounces a number of words, and reads much of the book as if it were sexy material. She has a rather sarcastic tone, which gets old fast. She tries to lower her voice for the males and ends up delivering them all in an expressionless monotone. This change in tone isn't necessary, as we always know who is speaking. I am fairly new to audiobooks, and perhaps this caliber of reader is standard (but I hope not).
I don't care how well drawn a character is or how historically accurate a book strives to be, the reader must be able to connect to at least one character in the book to make the read somewhat enjoyable. There was no joy in this book. The characters are flawed, but that is the only thing we really see about them. I found them dull (except for Chip, who is drawn with a little more humor), and plodding. I forced myself to finish listening to this since I'd bought it, but it never got better. If you like to dwell on how life is never what you think it's going to be, and enjoy commiserating with other equally disappointed characters, read this book. If this is not you, avoid it.
I felt the same about The Year We Left Home as I did about Jonathan Franzen's book, Freedom, each story about one family, both depressing to me. The writing is excellent, but I didn't love Thompson's characters, there was no joy in them. Maybe if I came from Iowa I could relate. The parents of the family were flat and and not developed - I wanted to l like them, but I knew little about them.
This book got a good review in the Oprah magazine otherwise I probably wouldn't have chosen it.
Of one thing I am certain, this is the most depressing book I have ever read or listened to. As a fan of Faulkner and his Southern regional decadence, he has nothing on this book. I waited and listened for hours, in anticipation of just one of the characters achieving a dream or some ounce of happiness. No, didn't happen. As a Midwesterner myself, I treasure the tight family connections, work ethic and values but none of these were exemplified or rewarded in this book. They were actually criticized and sullied, only to find some examination in the death of certain characters. So sad....I just wanted so badly to have the characters experience some joy in their lives.
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