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Showing 1-10 of 70 reviews(Verified Purchases). See all 117 reviews
on August 7, 2017
At first, I didn't much care for the family of small town, midwestern kids in the book. They seemed pretty feckless. But, as life leads them down different paths, they develop and grow in interesting and sometimes unexpected ways. I found myself getting caught up in their interwoven stories. It is honest and realistic about choices made. Chance plays a strong roll in events, but so does character and stamina. This is a book well worth reading.
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on December 20, 2012
I really liked this book. The author does a great job of contrasting so many different voices in her writing, and, I think, does it very convincingly. The characters she's created are great Mid-Western portraits. I'm from West Central Illinois, and have lived for a bit in Eastern Iowa, and I think she captures the different personalities I'm familiar with very well.

Each voice in the novel, I think, is written very well. The women sound like Iowan (or Chicagoan) women, and the men sound like some of the different types you meet here and there.

The way the narration works, jumping from year to year, snap shot after snap shot, for the most part, I think works pretty good. It captures the effect the novel puts out, that of looking back at different memories one has in life, as well as capturing the nuances of people's internal reactions to situations.

Sometimes, it gets a little old. It's definitely on the sparse side. There were some different stories I would have liked to read more about, but that might go against the point of the book.

You can tell Ms. Thompson has experience in the different areas she's writing about. The jokes about college students and academia, I think, are pretty funny. She nails the four year revolutionary mindset, pretty well. And I think she contrasts it well, like when she introduces Chip to the party of art students. I enjoyed that part a lot.

Her jokes about Midwest culture are pretty spot on too. Lots of casserole humor.

More than anything, I really appreciate her outlook on family life, as well as her take on being a 21st century American citizen.

A Thousand Acres by Jane Smiley looks at similar topics and situations, and essentially resolves on a pretty near "...and it all came crashing down, but what does it really matter, anyway?"

Or. at least, it seriously looks at how life can get beyond the point of redemption. And, to me, Smiley maintains that, sooner or later, one goes beyond that point.

Ms. Thompson looks at the same, or similar, questions with characters like Chip and Torrie, but resolves in a place of hope. Even though Torrie's life was filled with difficulty, she is able to branch out and find a life for herself.

And the scene at the end of the book, between Chip and Ryan, I thought was beautiful. The way they sum up your family in relation to one's country, I loved. Things aren't easy, and often filled with wild and painful things, but your family is your family, for better or worse. And, for the sake of this novel, I appreciate how the author resolved on a point of hope.

Her examination of change was also really interesting. Things come and go, and I really liked the way she showed how, just because things in America are different, doesn't mean things are dying. Just changing.

The one thing that I straight didn't like from the book was how she handled the main mother figure, Audrey. She was always portrayed in a pretty negative light. No one ever much wanted to be around her. It seemed to be the one thread in the story that didn't resolve.

That, to me, at least, seemed pretty low. But, I guess in a novel about not knowing what you have till it's gone, works out, one way or another.

On the whole, I definitely think this is a moving and human drama about normal people, one that goes into detail about how rich, painful, and nuanced, life can be, no matter who you are.
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on May 30, 2011
The Year We Left Home is a terrific character-driven book that spans many decades of one family from Iowa. I realize that on its face this does not make the book sound tremendously exciting, and for that I apologize, because this book is simply lovely in every way.

Author Jean Thompson traces the lives of several family members from the 1970's to the present day. The main family members around which the novel are framed include Chip, a Vietnam veteran who is struggling to return to middle America after serving in the war; Ryan, his younger cousin who strives to get out of their small town; Anita, Ryan's quintessentially older sister; Torrie, his younger, free-spirited sister; and Audrey, the unexpectedly fragile matriarch of the clan.

I'm afraid it's really difficult to describe what is so good about this book, but I'll try. Often when books attempt to span large periods of time, they take on a Forrest-Gumpish quality where the characters have forced conversations about at all of the major historical events occurring at the time. Conversely, this book takes the approach of describing in loving, moving, and often humorous detail how people were just living their lives as most of us do, without getting derailed with ponderous discussions of the hallmarks of each era. To be sure, there are references to how the times they are a-changin'. But for the most part, this is just a fantastic study of a family just like any other, with its triumphs and tragedies. I wanted to know more about each character, and was sad when I turned the final page.
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on August 5, 2012
I'm always fascinated by novels that explore the dynamics of family, the good times and the frictions, the struggles that recur and the unspoken challenges that remain hidden, and how each member of a family deals with the same things. Jean Thompson's new novel, The Year We Left Home, is an interesting and well-written look at more than the 30 years in the life of the Erickson family, seen through the eyes of the matriarch, her four children, a distant cousin and one of her grandchildren. While the book doesn't necessarily explore earth-shattering issues and there are no shocking plot developments, I feel it aptly represents more than 95 percent of families--it's the everyday issues that challenge and test a family's strength.

The book opens in Grenada, Iowa in 1973. Anita, the oldest Erickson child, has just gotten married and can think of nothing more than a life raising a family in the town where she grew up. Meanwhile, her brother Ryan, just on the cusp of graduating from high school, watches the wedding reception from the sidelines and dreams of getting out of Grenada and making a life for himself far away from the clutches of his family. An encounter with his cousin, Chip, recently returned from Vietnam, lays the foundation for a sporadic relationship that has interesting ramifications throughout the book. Each chapter looks at a different character at a different point in time, as they deal with the different challenges life throws at them--good and bad. Some characters grow while others stay the same, much like life itself.

I enjoyed this book and definitely felt compelled to keep reading because I wanted to see how the story would unfold for all of the characters. As I mentioned earlier, nothing truly earth-shattering or surprising happens in the book, although there are some moments when I wondered how a situation would resolve itself. Some of the characters are more interesting than others, which makes some of the chapters less enjoyable, but on the whole, I felt as if I really got to know this family, and liked being part of their lives. A good read; perhaps not one that will knock your socks off, but Thompson is a terrific writer.
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VINE VOICEon June 19, 2011
This story that follows the journey of one family--from the 1970s to the 2000s--is filled with haunting themes of alienation, disillusionment, and a smidgen of hope thrown in occasionally. It spotlights not only one family from a small town in Iowa, but an era.

The Erickson offspring grew from hearty Midwestern stock, with traditional values more deeply entrenched, perhaps, because of the hint of the Norwegian origins that still cling to them. Some of the family members are still farming, while others have given up and "gone into town."

In the beginning of The Year We Left Home: A Novel, we meet several of the characters at the wedding of Anita, the family's beautiful daughter, who is filled with hope as she marries Jeff, a banker. On the fringes, we see Ryan, still living the somewhat "hippies" lifestyle, but excited about studying political science. Others, like cousin Chip, appear damaged, with strange behaviors--a legacy of his war years in Vietnam.

Told from shifting perspectives, the unfolding years are revealed, with the changes time and circumstances have wrought. Sadness, tragedy, loss...all of these visit them: Anita, Ryan, Blake, and Torrie, along with the cousins like Chip. None of them will escape what life throws at them, and some deal better than others.

I like this paragraph at the end, as Ryan contemplates an old farmhouse belonging to an aunt and uncle, now deceased, which he has bought in order to reclaim what it stood for.

"Built to last, Ryan agreed. It filled him with holy dread to stand in this place that testified to their grinding, incessant labor. How hard they had worked, and how stubbornly, every day of their lives, for their little bit of ease, little bit of pride. They had done so much. They had meant to do so much more. Imagine them slipping off to death regretting the task unfinished, the field unplowed, the child unloved. It could break your heart. He felt an urgency in him, a clamoring. Compared to them, he wasn't old at all. Chip stooped and picked another horseshoe out of the soft dirt and handed it to Ryan and Look, he said. You're lucky too."

In a sense, these two men have reclaimed their place, standing inside. Giving up life on the fringes. As I read this story, that sometimes jumped ahead several years in the telling, I could feel the spirit of the times. The details of the characters and their daily lives were haunting, yet down to earth in the manner of the Midwesterner. While the characters had "left home," they still contained the seeds of family that ultimately defined them.

The author's leaps and jumps in time frame sometimes left unanswered questions. Leaving some characters behind while rejoining others felt a little disjointed at times, which is why I am giving this one four stars. Still heartily recommended for students of family, tradition, and how the twentieth century marked the lives of one family in a way that echoed throughout the country.
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on March 14, 2012
Elizabeth Strout won the Pulitzer Prize in 2008 for her brilliant novel "Olive Kitteridge" which is fascinating on many levels, but one of which is this: each chapter would qualify as a stand-alone short story. But those stories actually do create a novel with a plot. And the same is true of "The Year We Left."
Set primarily in Iowa, the focus is upon one family with its roots in Norway, those hard-working light-skinned people who have strong family and religious roots. But, of course, then comes the reality of what happens when outside influences emerge. So the story involves the set of parents and their four children.
The novel opens with the oldest daughter's wedding, but told in third person--someone wrote that this is a monologue which it is so not a monologue--from the point of view of the older son, Ryan, near the end of his high school. And we just know that the happy bride and groom are probably not going to be that happy that long. And we also get a sense that Ryan has problems relating to people. And indeed that is confirmed as one works through this wonderful novel.
The novel covers approximately three decades. And it is a really brilliantly written and conceived novel.
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Jean Thompson's new novel, "The Year We Left Home" has quite rightly been compared to "Olive Kitterage". Both are novels set in small towns - "Olive" in Maine and "Year" in Iowa - and consist of short stories linked together. Both books share exquisite writing; nuanced studies of both characters and the times that make excellent reading.

"The Year We Left Home" begins in the waning days of the Vietnam War and ends in 2003, at the beginning of the Iraq War. The characters - all members of the extended Erikson family - are introduced and their lives are woven between the stories. In the 30 or so year period the book covers, marriages, births, deaths, and other markers of life occur. Some lives are more eventful than others; and those "events" are not necessarily good ones. Some lives are lived in addiction and others in the performance of good deeds for others. But all the lives are "lived". The Eriksons - parents, four children, grandchildren, and cousins and aunts and uncles - are fully formed people who you might meet in the course of your life. And as the characters evolve with the times, so does the town they live in.

Thompson has written a small gem of a novel. After I finished the novel, I wanted to know "what happens next". That's the mark of good writing.
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on October 1, 2016
I read this because I liked “The Humanity Project”. It did make me think about my family and wonder whatever had become of my cousins. Is there really still a family so in touch with each other. Certainly this family wasn’t united, but at least they knew each other. Or maybe I should say acquainted with one another. It seems they never ever “knew” each other. Overall, I think the book was well written, but it was depressing.
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on February 3, 2013
Follows a family of Iowa siblings as they scatter and then come back together at the end. The people ring very true. There is a troublesome cousin -- one of those people who never quite gets things right, and who just always makes things worse for himself. Goes to Viet Nam, comes back messed up -- but he was messed up before he went, too. And then kind of gets his feet on the ground, or maybe just finds the right niche for himself as an adult. I know people like that, and I always kind of liked them in spite of it all. Also very much liked the story of the sister who is in the car accident. Maybe there is a bit of wishful thinking at the very end -- as though the author couldn't quite maintain the rigor of the tough attitude she maintained through most of the novel -- but it is still very good. In fact, maybe I had come to like the characters so much I was also happy to let go of the rigor in order to treat myself to a happy ending.
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Parents raise children and then their children grow up and move out and move on. Many leave the cities or towns where they were raised but some stay put. No matter where one goes, however, they take their roots with them. In this wonderfully intelligent book by Jean Thompson, she follows an American family from Iowa from the years 1973 until 2003, couched between the war in Vietnam and the one in the middle east.

The novel is about four children in a family with Norwegian roots and their cousin, all of whom leave home in different ways, physically and emotionally. The protagonist of this story, if there is one, would be Ryan. He is the 'smart' son, the one bound for college and bigger things. He leaves home to attend Northwestern University to study political science, quickly learning that academia is not the idealistic place he had thought it would be. He becomes an Information Technology specialist and makes a lot of money opening his own company. We watch him while he dates, marries, has children, and then comes full circle - returning home. At one point, he and his wife, who are living in Chicago, are talking and he says, "sometimes I think, we blew it, we were both so anxious to get away and not be one bit like our parents and we had to, it was so smothering. But back home, I can look up and down just about any street and there's people I'm either related to or I've known them all my life and my parents have known them and my grandparents knew their grandparents and there's a comfort in that. I miss it. That's all I'm saying. Here, it's like we're not from anywhere." Ryan feels like he's in "The Great State of Alienation. It stretched from sea to shining sea. Everybody in America is one of two things, either in or out."

Anita is the 'beauty queen' of the family. She has managed to go through high school on her looks and has no real ambitions except to marry and have children. She is the oldest of the four. She ends up marrying a banker who is an alcoholic and they stay in the same small town where she was raised. We observe Anita become aware of what alcoholism is and as she becomes involved in Al-Anon, trying to overcome her co-dependence. She develops insight into alcoholism. Why did Jeff drink? "Because it's Tuesday. Because he couldn't find his blue socks. It's alcohol, it don't need a reason..." She also doesn't understand her oldest child, Matt, who is a musician. He has quit college and is traveling around the country with his band. "He was going wherever it was that a guy with a guitar went these days." "Maybe some people just weren't born to stick around. They already had a ticket on that rocket to the Final Frontier."

Chip is the family cousin who has just returned from Vietnam. There are thoughts that he was traumatized there or exposed to Agent Orange. He has trouble concentrating, roams around the continent, and uses a lot of weed and alcohol. Before going to Vietnam, he was considered a dork and never fit in. As he grows older, he never learns the nuances of being social but he learns to accept and rely on his family to stay with him. For him, 'Home's the place where, when you show up, they have to take you in."

Then there is Torrie, a wonderfully unique and free-spirited young woman who has a tragic accident in high school that forever changes the route that her life takes. She remains home with her parents for most of her younger adult years until she can prove she is able to master the world on her own.

Blake, the youngest son, has no wild dreams. He wants to be in construction and eventually opens his own contracting business in the same town he grew up in. He wonders sometimes why he didn't have bigger dreams but "wasn't it true that he'd settled into the life he'd wanted. He guessed he was just one of those old dogs who was happiest at home." He wonders about his son who signed up to fight overseas.

We watch the two generations of parents struggle with trying to encourage their childrens' individuation and the difficulties they face in letting them go. Jean Thompson beautifully explores the landscape of home, family and community. Each chapter is written from the perspective of a different character. if you liked Olive Kitteridge or The Imperfectionists: A Novel (Random House Reader's Circle), this is a book you will likely savor. It is very, very good.
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