Friday, May 13, 2011

Distpatches from the Field: Joe Writes in With His Impressions of...

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. 

Over the course of a thirty-year career, Jean Thompson has been celebrated by critics as “a writer of extraordinary intelligence and sensitivity” (O, The Oprah Magazine), “an American Alice Munro” (The Wall Street Journal), and “one of our most lucid and insightful writers” (San Francisco Chronicle). Her peers have been no less vocal, from Jennifer Egan (“bracing . . . boldly unconventional”) to David Sedaris (“if there are ‘Jean Thompson characters,’ they’re us, and never have we been as articulate and worthy of compassion”).

Now, 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 boomsand 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.

Joe says:
"In The Year We Left Home, Jean Thompson charts the lives of the Erickson family, for thirty years, beginning in 1973. This sweeping novel takes place, for the most part, in America's heartland: rural Iowa and in Chicago. Thompson proves to be an excellent chronicler of American history, as it affected regular Americans. Be that the Vietnam or post-9/11 wars, farm policy or even gentrification, Thompson highlights, in real detail, just how some of these events affected her characters. This novel is far more, though, than social commentary. With her highly-developed characters, the story Thompson weaves is one nearly everybody can relate to: family. They've shaped who we are, they have given us our histories, been support systems or something we long to get away from. And the Erickson siblings are no different. They have triumph and setback, tragedy and frustration. The story is told from the perspective of several characters, which in less deft hands may not ring as true or varied. But Jean Thompson knows what she's doing: telling the story of a family needs many voices to get at the truth. She nails it in this novel. The Year We Left Home is so powerfully written, I reread entire chapters just to experience them again. This book had me laughing, it made me cry, it made me think. I want my bookclub to read this book so we can talk about everything it's got inside. I want my bookclub to read this book because I'll feel bad for them if they don't. It's that good. When I finished the book, I picked it back up and started reading from the beginning again. Not only did I want to revisit those characters, but I wanted to experience something we can't do in our real lives: start over and see it all again. Jean Thompson has created a masterpiece in this novel. I feel that this book could easily be regarded as a pillar of American literature. It tells a thoroughly American story in a universal, heartbreaking manner."

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