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Friday, May 06, 2022

Looking for Your Next Debate-Provoking Book Club Read? You Found It!

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

Twenty years ago, 42-year-old Leigh Mackenzie wanted nothing more than to play hockey in the Olympics. She trained with relentless focus, pushed herself to the brink of collapse, and visualized herself standing proud on the podium. As an added guarantee, she accepted the advances of her coach, who promised her a spot on the team in exchange for sexual favors. When Jeff Carlson failed to deliver, Leigh's dreams were crushed. Shamed and shattered, she buried their secret affair and left the sport behind, using her athletic drive to become a successful investment banker in Florida. 

When a job opportunity leads Leigh back to her hockey-obsessed hometown, she returns to Minnesota with great reluctance. As much as she doesn't want to face her past, she can't deny that Liston Heights is the best place for her son—a 9-year-old hockey prodigy—to excel. Getting Gus on the right team with the right coach is essential, but it will mean plunging their little family into the cutthroat world of competitive sports on a level her husband and child have never experienced before. Not only is Jeff Carlson in the center of that universe, but so is Susy Walker, Leigh's former teammate and the only person who knows what really happened between her and Jeff two decades ago. 

Leigh is dismayed to discover that despite Gus' natural skill, he's far behind the other kids in his training. When Jeff offers to help, Leigh finds herself in a delicate position once again. How far is she willing to go to get Gus where he needs to be? With rumors of a new sexual harrasment suit against Jeff in the air, she has to decide whether to keep quiet for her son's sake or reveal the explosive secret even her husband, Charlie, doesn't know in order to take an influential predator out of the game for good. 

Before I start dishing about Home Or Away, Kathleen West's newest novel, I should say right up front that I don't have a competitive bone in my body. I've never been into sports and even with games I do enjoy (like, say, Scrabble), I care not at all whether I win or lose. In my (not so) humble opinion, youth sports should be a safe, supportive environment where children can learn and have fun, not a place for hyper parents to relive their own glory days or pad their egos by pressuring their kids to win, then losing their minds when the players don't triumph or perform as well as expected. Because of these pre-existing feelings, I admit I went into Home Or Away with some heavy biases that affected my reaction to and enjoyment of the story. Incidentally, I have to say that the novel did nothing to change these biases. In fact, it just reinforced them...

At any rate, you won't be suprised to learn that I had a hard time relating to the characters in this book. I simply don't understand people whose lives revolve completely around their children's sporting events. It's even tougher for me to conceive of parents who do the kinds of things Leigh, Charlie, and their friends do in the name of hockey. To me, it just seems silly to care as much as they do about the athletic career of a NINE YEAR OLD. So, while Charlie is much more likable than Leigh, I still really didn't care for either of them (if you want a more spirited and spoiler-y explanation of why, you can read my lengthy Goodreads review here). The only person in the story who mattered to me was young Gus. 

All that being said, West does do a good job of bringing the whole crazy competitive hockey culture thing to life. I could really FEEL the characters' emotions, from the highs of winning to the lows of defeat. The tension in the novel, from both the high-strung parents and the too-pressured kids, is palpable. That constant conflict kept me burning through the pages. I definitely wanted to know how the story was going to play out. So, while I can't say I loved this novel (Did I even like it? I'm not sure.), it did keep me reading. In addition, the book's plot and themes provide plenty of food for thought and discussion. If you're on the hunt for a read that will provoke a lively debate at your next book club meeting, you just found it...

(Readalikes: Reminds me of You Will Know Me by Megan Abbott)


If this were a movie, it would be rated:

for language, sexual content/sexual innuendo, and disturbing subject matter

To the FTC, with love: I received an e-ARC of Home Or Away from the generous folks at Penguin Random House via those at NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. Thank you!

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