Books before food (and any sort of comfortable life).
Name: Home Leave
Author: Brittani Sonnenberg
Publisher: Grand Central Publishing
Published: June 3rd, 2014
Genre: Adult Contemporary
Format: Hardcover, Kindle, eBook, audio
Summary: 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?
I received this book through a Goodreads giveaway. Quotes were taken from an uncorrected proof and may have changed in the final edition. All opinions are my own.
I had a strong love/hate relationship with this book. On the one hand, the writing was good and the story was interesting. On the other hand, the book seemed to lag on and on with no end in sight. Plus, I kind of wanted to murder the main characters at certain points.
The Story: The book starts off with the point of view of the house that Elise grew up in. It talks about Elise’s childhood and what it’s like being a house, and how when it was new it didn’t realize that its human family would someday split apart.
That’s the one thing they never tell you when you’re newly built: your youngest inhabitants will walk out on you one day, in search of new dwellings. I had heard that people die, of course; I saw the Ebert children grow and Charles and Ada age, even as my paint chipped and my linoleum cracked. But I was naive enough to believe I would shelter the six of them for as long as they were walking this earth.
I thought the introductory chapter was very unique. I’ve never read a book before where the narrator was a house. I was kind of hoping, actually, that the whole book would be in the perspective of the houses that the Kriegsteins lived in, but I read a lot of reviews where people didn’t like that type of narration.
Elise and Chris meet at college, and then very typically fall in love and get married. They then move to London for a few years and are really happy until Chris gets relocated to Germany. This sends Elise into an almost “uncaring” depression, which only gets a little better when they move back to the states, before Elise has Sophie, but it also brings a new problem.
She tried to describe the new feeling, the new urges, the new apathy towards mothering that reminded her of the clarinet when she was twelve. For three years Elise had devoted herself to the instrument, and then one day she simply couldn’t summon the desire to practice. She never missed it afterwards, either.
I know that many women suffer from postpartum depression after having their baby, but then Elise constantly leaves her kid to go on vacations by herself. That’s so fucking selfish to me. I know everyone needs time to themselves occasionally, but Elise was away from Leah more than she was there. Deadbeat Mom 101, guys. And then when the family gets relocated to Shanghai, that depression transfers to Leah.
In fact, contrary to what Mom had promised, the longer we were in Shanghai, the more I missed the States, maybe also because I felt like I’d lost Sophie as a partner in crime, now that she had turned so enthusiastic about the city.[…] With every new day in China, I felt like I had to put on a face of okayness, of tough survival, with Mom and Dad and even Sophie, too, the same way I put on my clothes every morning.
She knew her family didn’t fit in, but being the one that fit in the least was really hard for her. Sophie tried to include her in things, but Leah still didn’t feel as if she fit in. They then moved to Singapore, and when Leah finally feels like she fits in, Elise hits rock bottom with her depresion, and Chris feels like maybe going away all the time for business isn’t what he wants, Sophie dies and leaves them all right back at the beginning again.
The Characters: The only characters that I liked in this book were Leah and Sophie. The parents aren’t very good parents, and then the side characters might as well not have even been there. Chris’ parents get a whole chapter to themselves in the very beginning, but I don’t know if they were even mentioned ever again. Elise’s parents and sister get the same treatment. It didn’t bother me, though, until the side characters were randomly mentioned like they’d been there all along, immersed in the story.
Sophie was, by far, my favorite character even though she was dead for most of the book. Even in death she was so full of life and I just loved that about her. When Sophie was still alive, she and Leah had a strong bond, the kind formed between siblings who have parents that are semi-absent. They’re only three years apart, so they can relate to each other very well. While Leah was quiet, Sophie was outgoing, and where Sophie was being reckless, Leah knew how to be wise. They were the best of friends, and their personalities rubbed off on the other.
There was some jealousy and sister rivalry, but they never let it get in the way of their relationship, which I really loved. When Sophie died, Leah was at such a loss that it took her over fifteen years to accept it and move on so she could be happy again. She moved first to Shanghai, but after realizing she’d never fit in there, Leah moved to Germany. Because she’s white, she could walk through the German streets and no one would suspect her of being a foreigner. No one would ever ask her if this is really her home, which is all she wanted: a place to call her own.
Germany was also the only country I had ever lived in without Sophie. Perhaps living here again, I thought, would teach me how to live without her again.
Leah’s story was my favorite. After the tragedy of losing her sister, her best friend, I felt that the ending to her story was done in the right way. She’d never have her sister again, but Sonnenberg did give her a chance at happiness, which I was grateful for.
The Cheating: I don’t think I’ll ever understand the concept of cheating on one’s monogamous partner. I think it’s disgusting, spineless, and cowardly, among many other things. I have never read a book where I’ve supported or even been blasé about someone cheating on their partner, and I suspect I never will. I completely understand that the adultery in this book could have been sympathized with, but I personally just can’t do it. For this reason, much of this section will be completely biased towards my own personal feelings on the subject. If anyone takes offense to this, I’m sorry but I don’t care.
So, after Sophie dies, Elise goes into another depression where she doesn’t give a shit about anything, but at the same time she wants her family near her at all times so she can smother them. Makes sense, right?
Even now, as she cleared her throat and told us that she was going on a walk and drifted off, her lanky frame far too lanky these days, I wanted to call her back, rock her to sleep, scream that she couldn’t leave us now too.[…] Yet in between impulses to suffocate Leah and to burrow into Chris like a baby marsupial, I also badly wanted to do the opposite: I wanted to run away from both of them.
She realizes one day that she’s tired of neglecting her family
only took her twelve years and the death of her daughter, so Elise decides that the thing to get her out of her depression over her daughter’s death is cheating on Chris.
Specifically, with Bernd Pinker. I know, I know, a stupid name. And a horribly stupid idea: how on earth could anyone even consider nursing a crush after losing their daughter?
I hate you so much, Elise, but somehow I feel some sympathy for you because of your stupid childhood trauma and depression shit. I still, however, want you to fall off of a cliff for wanting to cheat on your husband right after your daughter’s death. But really, the only person I just can’t muster any fucks for is Chris because of the sheer fact that he knows his wife wants to cheat on him and yet he decides to do absolutely nothing about it.
And so, with Bernd, I’d decided to just let it happen. I saw it as a forgone conclusion, and, I admit, it was a good excuse for me to tune out even more. Elise was the one who had insisted we needed this vacation together, the three of us, so if she wanted to spend it drooling over some balding community-theatre type, more power to her. It took her off my hands.
You bastard. I can’t even tell you how much it angers me that Chris had an opportunity to TALK to Elise about her desired adultery and yet he never took it. Instead, he chose to let his wife have the affair. Instead, he chose to ignore his wife’s obvious pain. Instead, he chose to not deal with his marital problems like a real man should. Because the best way to deal with problems is to ignore them, right? Fuck you, Chris. And fuck you, Brittani Sonnenberg for making the lead male character not only a wuss, but a parent that ignores his kid’s problems. Leah was suffering greatly because of Sophie’s death, and Elise told you about it because a) you’re Leah’s father and b) she wasn’t stable enough to deal with it herself.
Elise had mentioned Leah’s overexercising to me, but I’d always dismissed it. I’d actually taken pride in the idea that Leah was just as committed to being in shape for her soccer season as I’d always been for basketball.
Yes, because after watching her sister die on her school’s soccer field she’s really going to play next season. Moron. Chris’ family is just falling apart and he decides the best way to deal with is just to tune out and ignore that it’s happening. Leah notices. She knows what’s going on.
“I couldn’t stay there,” she finally said.
“At that table. With Mom and Mr. Pinker. And you just sitting there, like, I don’t know, some sad old dog.[…]Just letting her go for it. Just letting this ugly, stupid, British dude flirt with her the whole night, while you order more rice.”
This whole situation. I just can’t. It makes me so angry. And then Elise had the balls to say that the affair with Bernd was a good thing.
I’ve never been able to explain, not to myself, nor to any therapist since, how sleeping with Bernd saved my marriage, even if he ruined Christmas that first year without Sophie. Which was arguably already fucked.
I don’t give a flying fuck how good it was for your marriage in the long run, in that period of time when you were committing adultery—be it a year, a month, or a minute—the rest of your family was suffering because they knew. They fucking knew. I’m okay. I’m done, I swear.
Overall Impression: This book was wonderful in the standpoint of two sisters with such a tight bond that the death of one would propel the other into a lifetime of hurt. Their love was raw, painful, and above all beautiful to read about. I just wish that Sonnenberg would have focused more on them than their idiotic parents who didn’t deserve even a little bit of attention. I also wish that she would have written more chapters like the first one. What killed this book for me, though, was the cheating and, ultimately, the child abandonment. I felt that if Sonnenberg wanted to include such unlikeable characters, she shouldn’t have written any of the book in their perspective.