Book review: Home Leave by Brittani Sonnenberg

by , under book reviews, books and reading, LibraryThing

(I really love this cover!)
I received an advance reader’s copy of Home Leave, the debut novel by Brittani Sonnenberg, through the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program. Many thanks to LT and to Grand Central Publishing (Hachette Group) for the opportunity to read and review it.

Description from Hachette’s site:
Chris Kriegstein is a man on the move, with a global career that catapults his family across North America, Europe, and Asia. For his wife, Elise, the hardship of chronic relocation is soothed by the allure of reinvention. Over the years, Elise shape-shifts: once a secretive Southern Baptist, she finds herself becoming a seasoned expat in Shanghai, an unapologetic adulterer in Thailand, and, finally, a renowned interior decorator in Madison.

But it’s the Kriegstein daughters, Leah and Sophie, who face the most tumult. Fiercely protective of each other — but also fiercely competitive — the two sisters long for stability in an ever-changing environment. With each new move, the girls find they can count on only one thing: the consoling, confounding presence of each other.

When the family suffers an unimaginable loss, they can’t help but wonder: Was it meant to be, or did one decision change their lives forever? And what does it mean when home is everywhere and nowhere at the same time? With humor and heart, Brittani Sonnenberg chases this wildly loveable family through the excitement and anguish of their adventures around the world.

Brittani Sonnenberg is a talented writer, and the range of narrative styles in Home Leave illustrates a willingness to be experimental. I looked at the other LibraryThing reviews, and a few of them expressed frustration at some of the narrators Sonnenberg used. For me, that was one of the most enjoyable aspects of the book. When I started reading, I couldn’t figure out who was narrating. I re-read the description on the back of the book, looking for some hint. On page three or four, it became clear who it was, and I thought of starting my review with: “You won’t be able to guess the first narrator, so just go with it; you’ll know who it is by page four.” Other reviewers hated that beginning, but I thought it was cool. There are two chapters written as mini-plays, and there’s a chapter near the end of the book written in first person plural. All of these worked fine for me, but they won’t work for everyone.

The book opens with two epigraphs; one of these explains, “The purpose of home leave is to ensure that employees who live abroad for an extended period undergo reorientation and re-exposure in the United States on a regular basis.” Chris Kriegstein is from Indiana, and Elise grew up in Mississippi. The young family spends about four years in Atlanta, and two or three in Shanghai, but for sisters Leah and Sophie, “home” is really one another. Sonnenberg paints these two girls, and their relationship, very realistically. Leah sometimes takes care of Sophie, but is just as often annoyed with her. Leah is quiet and bookish, while Sophie is more energetic and adventurous. As Leah becomes a moody teenager, they drift apart somewhat … but not far apart.

Readers who prefer “likeable” characters could have problems with Elise. The publisher blurb says that she “shape-shifts,” and one of her identities is “unapologetic adulterer.” When Leah is a baby, Elise often feels trapped by motherhood, and when she learns she is pregnant for a second time, she isn’t happy about it. However, when the girls are a bit older and the family is abroad, Elise often seems like a “normal” mom: she has her quirks and bad moods, but it’s clear that she loves her daughters. Chris is probably the least vivid of the main characters, to me, and yet I did like him a good deal. We learn in the second chapter (which seems to be set the closest to present day) that Chris was a star athlete in his Indiana high school, became a successful businessman who lived in several countries, and is now his company’s CEO. He and Elise are still married and living in Madison, Wisconsin, having made it through her affair, his overseas jobs, their mutual grief.

The backdrop of the novel is the panorama of international settings, but at its heart are grief and loss. The family suffers a tragedy, and can’t return to normal. There’s some irony, too, in the title of the book: “home leave” is what Elise and the girls take for a couple of months each summer, while Chris remains in China, but Leaving Home is what Chris and Elise both wanted desperately to do when they were growing up — and succeeded, spending several years on the other side of the world. Leaving Home is what Leah and Sophie do as well, in very different ways. Sonnenberg weaves a fine tapestry of people, place, time, and loss, that will stay with me for a long time.
© All the parts of my life 2008-2015.

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