Monday, August 22, 2011

The Year We Left Home: Not Quite Franzen

A few weeks ago, The Year We Left Home, by Jean Thompson, appeared on Entertainment Weekly's back-page Bullseye feature. It suggested that if you "love" Jonathan Franzen, check out this book. It's kind of rare that a not-big-name novel shows up in Bullseye. And I do love Jonathan Franzen.

So, I thought, let's do this! I'd never heard of Thompson, but luckily, I had a copy of the novel on hand — I'd won it several months ago in a Friday Reads giveaway. So I dug it up from where it'd been buried at the bottom of a pile of non-priority novels, and dug in. Especially after reading Murakami, I needed something more realistic, relatively straightforward and not long. The Year We Left Home fit the bill. 

I'm telling you all this because, at least to me, the story of how I came to read the novel is actually more interesting than the novel itself. Beginning in 1973 with the marriage of the eldest daughter, the story traverses 30 years in the lives of the members of a small-town Iowa family. We get short 20-page or so vignettes advancing the stories of each of the four siblings (as well as a crazy cousin named Chip) a few years at a time, chronicling their successes and failures, tragedies and victories.

Yes, it rings very true; it is some the more authentic fiction I've read — as someone who grew up in a small Midwestern town, I can say that definitively. But it sure isn't very interesting. My favorite mini-story was one that takes place in Chicago, and I only liked that one because of the "recognizable places / street names" effect.

Overall, I kept wondering if the story of this family is a story that really needed to be told. It's just so mundane. For example, one of the first stories is about one of the siblings and her mother going to visit their sick aunt. And that's it. They visit her. And they're sad she's dying. And then we jump ahead a couple years, and she's already died. In fact, in the rare cases that something interesting happens, it always happens either off-page or at the very end of one of the vignettes, and we wouldn't learn the true effect of that interesting or important event until several years later, and then from the perspective of one of the other siblings. Strange storytelling choice, that. The effect is that it pretty much removes any of the drama from the novel. 

So, I wasn't a fan. But if you're looking for an ultra-realistic Midwestern family saga, you may enjoy this. Also, if you like depressing fiction, man, this is right in your sweet spot. A little 'net research has revealed that Jean Thompson is better known for her short stories, including her National Book Award finalist collection Who Do You Love: Stories. Her short-fiction prowess is pretty clear from the style and structure of this novel, so I'd also suggest checking out any of her volumes of short stories.  


  1. I'm excited for this one and am a fan of ultra-realistic Midwestern stories. It's also a pleasant surprise to see a book set in Iowa get national love. I'm sorry it didn't totally work for you, but it's nice to see EW's Bullseye have an impact. I always get excited when there are novels there!

  2. From what you tell me, I can understand why people would compare it to Franzen, but there seems to be the X factor missing, the bigger picture that binds all these lives together. To me, comparing a writer to Franzen is to venture into a very slippery ground.

  3. I think EW has some good recommendations, although I don't remember seeing this one. It doesn't sound like something I would go out of my way to read, especially with Freedom on my list to finish before the end of the year.

  4. @nomareader - Yep, well, there's plenty'o'Iowa in this sucker. ;) Yeah, even though this one didn't work out, I'm always excited to see novels amidst the other pop culture detritus in EW. They're not always right on the mark, but at least they're talking about books, unlike many, many other pop culture magazines.

    @Ben - Yeah, the X factor is something unusual. Freedom had a liberal guy talking about overpopulation, sex, drugs and rock and roll. This had none of that. It was a just a chronicle of the family's history where not much interesting happened, and when it did, it was mostly off page.

    @LBC - Definitely read Freedom before this one. The Year We Left Home is like a very poor reader's Freedom.

  5. Hmmmm . . . I am not sure whether I would enjoy this one. Something about it really intrigues me, but the slow pace may be too much for me. I definitely have to be in the mood for a book like this.

  6. Thanks so much for sharing an honest review. I'll get right to reading this one after we finish our kitchen remodeling nyc work.