Tag Archives: jean thompson

A CLOUD IN THE SHAPE OF A GIRL by Jean Thompson

[I am FOUR reviews behind. Ugh! I think I need to make these posts shorter.]

A Cloud In The Shape Of A Girl by Jean Thompson is probably going to make my top 3 books of 2018. I really enjoyed this story about three generations of women in one midwestern university town. Warning: it’s pretty depressing.

Evelyn, the grandmother, is dying when the book opens. Thompson takes the reader back to Evelyn’s marriage, shortly after World War II, and her relationship with her professor husband. Evelyn isn’t particularly happy with him or with her life, but she participates dutifully as they attend events at the university and raise two children, Mark and Laura. She isn’t a particularly warm mother or grandmother, and in her old age, grows more prickly.

Laura grows up, gets married and has two kids of her own. She stays in the same university town, close to her parents, and works for the university. Her husband Gabe is a difficult alcoholic, and his behavior, along with their son’s drug addiction, puts a strain on their marriage. Their daughter, Grace, tries to get as far away from her family as she can, but feels the pull of obligation when her mother gets sick and her father and brother’s relationship deteriorates.

This is not lighthearted stuff.

I thought Thompson did an excellent job of tracking the family threads binding these people together, happily or unhappily, and the ways our parents shape us and define our lives. I dog-eared so many pages of this book because the writing was so insightful. Here are a few sentences I loved:

“When did you reach the point when you started counting up losses, rather than looking forward to adventures?” (Ugh – so sad!)

“When your parents died, you lost your childhood, or at least the best witnesses to it.”

“Death was impersonal. It pulled your loves and hates up by the roots. It rolled right over your likes and dislikes. It took as much as it could of history and memory. This was its moment. All else fell back behind it.”

A Cloud In The Shape Of A Girl is not action-packed. So much of what happens are small gestures – people just making it through the day. But the women felt incredibly real to me, and I felt their pain, longing and conflict right along with them. Cancer, drug addiction, alcoholism are all explored in relatable, poignant detail in Thompson’s quiet, understated prose. These characters’ lives are messy, and they don’t end tied up in neat bows. That’s life, right?

THE YEAR WE LEFT HOME by Jean Thompson

I think I just finished my favorite book of the summer.

Thompson The Year We Left Home, by Jean Thompson, is exactly the kind of book I love – a family drama spanning several decades with commentary about modern American life. The book is really more of a collection of related chapters, rather than a novel with a linear plot. It’s about the Ericksons, four children in an unremarkable Iowa family: Anita, the beauty queen; Ryan, the smart one; Blake, the underachiever; and Torrie, the rebellious teen. Also in the mix is Chip, their cousin, who is a mentally unstable Vietnam vet when the book opens in the 70s.

I loved The Year We Left Home. It’s full of the kind of realistic detail that makes you feel like you’re in the room, watching the action unfold. There are few words in the book that ring false. These characters are flawed, to be sure, and their lives are full of disappointments and challenges. Midwestern America from the ’70s to the ’00s serves as the backdrop of the Ericksons’ lives, from the two wars bookending the story to the tech bubble and the farm foreclosures of the 80s.

Because each chapter jumps ahead to different time periods and characters, The Year We Left Home isn’t a linear story, as mentioned above. But there is a theme threaded throughout: the relationship these characters have to their Iowa hometown, whether they stayed or left, and the push and pull effect that home and family have on the lives we live once we become old enough to leave.

There are a lot of poignant passages throughout – here’s one that I liked:

The sun slid over his face, warming it. It was a nice moment, and he felt a kind of useless melancholy at the idea that that the three of them would never again sit here in just such a moment and that no moment of life was like any other and as soon as you became aware of them, they were as good as gone. He must have been tired.

I found myself reading this one slowly, so that I could savor each page. Thompson builds subtle suspense and tension throughout the book, and minor characters make recurring appearances that tie the book together realistically without feeling contrived.

So, I’m recommending this one highly, if you like the same kinds of books that I do. Thanks to Simon & Schuster for the review copy. (Hi FTC! I think you’d like this one too. Especially the tech bubble part.)