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The Year We Left Home
by Jean Thompson
Simon & Schuster
|The Year We Got Bored
by Kate Shoup (0-0)
Booklist called Jean Thompson’s The Year We Left Home“superb” and “finely crafted.” Kirkus Reviews described it as “dazzling” and “unforgettable.” Unfortunately, I must use a different set of adjectives to describe the book: “slow” and “tedious.”Here was my problem: I kept wondering when the actual story part would start—you know, the bit where things happened to people, and I cared about them. The answer to that question, it turned out, was never. There were a few moments when I thought, “Yes! Here we go!” Like when one character flipped her car on a country road, I naturally assumed this cataclysmic event would serve as the launch pad for the rest of the book. But it didn’t. I didn’t find out for sure what happened to that character for another 43 pages—a span that represents 10 years in the book’s narrative.Maybe it’s just a matter of simple math. The book runs 325 pages and recounts the lives of seven characters. That means on average, you get 46 pages per character (although in reality, some characters get more attention than others). Add to that the fact that the narrative spans 30 years, and you start to see that there’s no way to get any real depth. What you have instead are a series of episodes—snapshots, really—in the lives of these people. Only, they’re not the episodes you’d want to read about; for the most part, they’re the aspects of a person’s life story that you’d leave out because there’s just not that much happening.
Yes, the book touches on some big ideas—families, the idea of home, American life. But when I’m reading, I need more. I need to connect with the characters. With this book, I just didn’t.
by Traci Cumbay (2-0)
Life should work like this—jumping from point A to point Q with a page flip. But only if you get to skip the boring parts, and that isn’t always the case in The Year We Left Home.Forget walking a mile, in this book you jump in and live a few days as a barely functioning Vietnam vet while he attempts family life; you hoard food as a petulant teenaged girl—the last child in the family, desperate to leave home. Try seducing a student; try facing down the man with the gun in the desert.The novel starts in 1973 and moves through jumps in perspective over varying time periods to 2003. The main characters are part of one family—two sisters, a brother, and one wonked-out cousin. (You get other perspectives, but not often enough to know those characters or feel that they’re important.)Life should work like this, but maybe novels shouldn’t.
The bits comprising chapters rarely do more than give glimpses. Here, Anita struggles with motherhood. There, Matt has a basketball-court run-in with his father. Everywhere, people are bumping around, mostly right there where they grew up. The crazy one leaves. The college boy stays gone. They’re no better off than the ones who stayed, and vice-versa.
The whole to-do feels less like a novel than a family album. Each piece is a snapshot. An extremely well-composed record of people being less than they should be, especially to the people they love. The characters throw stereo-smashing fits; they endure car crashes and have love affairs. They’re just us: by turns rotten and earnest and apathetic.
I’d have settled in with almost any one of them, if I’d been given the chance.