George Bernard Shaw once quipped, "When our relatives are at home, we have to think of all their good points or it would be impossible to bear them."
So it is with the Erickson clan of Grenada, Iowa, featured family in Jean Thompson's new novel.
Ryan -- the central figure in a large cast of essential characters -- is an outsider in his own family. When the novel opens, he's at the American Legion hall helping his aunt and uncle (who aren't technically his aunt and uncle) prepare food for his sister's wedding reception.
Norm and Martha are actually "his mother's mother's people," the Peersons, "the scariest of the old Norwegian families." Ryan thinks, "They believed in backbreaking labor, followed by more labor, and in privation, thrift, cleanliness, and joyless charity. If you wanted a tree taken down or a truck winched out of a ditch or a quarter of a cow packaged for your meat locker, you called a Peerson."
The novel begins at Anita's wedding (a staid Lutheran affair) in 1973 and follows the Ericksons through the ensuing decades. Grenada is the hub around which all the action takes place, but Ms. Thompson follows her extended family across the country to Reno and Seattle, north to Chicago to Italy and Mexico. Her story ends back in Grenada in 2003, the circle complete.
Does the word "saga" strike fear into your heart? Does the phrase "family drama" smack of imminent boredom? Then how to make this rich, detailed, resonant, emotionally spot-on novel sound as fantastic as it truly is?
Ms. Thompson was a finalist for the National Book Award for her collection of short stories, "Who Do You Love." And though "The Year We Left Home" is a novel, it reads like one of her best short story collections.
The chapters jump ahead by months or by years through the farm bust of the 1970s to the tech bubble of the late '90s and early 2000s. Each is told from the point of view of a different family member, so that we learn slowly not just what Ryan makes of his sisters, Anita and Torrie, or his mother, or his cousin, Chip, but what Anita makes of Ryan, what Torrie makes of her mother, what Chip makes of the entire brood.
By the end of the novel, the reader knows more about the Ericksons than even the Ericksons.
The effect is enormously satisfying, allowing the reader not only to connect the dots but to fill in the blanks the author shrewdly leaves wide open. Those gaps make the reading of "The Year We Left Home" participatory.
In one chapter, Ryan returns home from college with Janine, a poet, with whom he shares a passion both physical and emotional. But he is a consummate ass toward his family and Janine and he wakes up in the morning to find her gone. Years later he runs into her again in Chicago. They consider having an affair but in the end decide to leave well enough alone.
Near the novel's end, on a last gasp trip to Italy to save his marriage, Ryan leaves his villa and, in a remarkable and pleasing moment of authorial intrusion, Ms. Thompson mentions a magazine her protagonist left unopened in which he would have found a poem by Janine. (The author coyly writes, "[T]he god of coincidences couldn't be expected to attend to everything.")
Janine's poem works on the reader by illuminating her view of the break-up lo those many years ago and allowing us into the mind of the poet, making what would have been an interesting but obscure poem knowable to us.
Ms. Thompson has a light, exquisite touch. "The Year We Left Home" feels weightless as a result. Her family is a kind of Everyfamily. We are them and they are us. But that sounds trite and the novel is anything but.
In the end, this is a book about tribes. Ms. Thompson returns to that word more than a half dozen times, the tribes of our birth, the tribes of our own choosing. Family. State. Nation. Nerds. Cheerleaders.
"Tribes," she writes. "It all came back to that, one way or another."
Bill Eichenberger is a critic in Columbus, Ohio, who writes the BookSerf blog at www.thebookserf.blogspot.com .