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The Distance Home

Review

The Distance Home

A few months ago, when I first heard about Paula Saunders’ THE DISTANCE HOME, it was described as a novel about siblings who love to dance. This may be factually true --- and, indeed, readers who love books about dance, especially ballet, will find this aspect of the novel richly rewarding --- but at the end of the day, that’s really only part of what this remarkable debut is about.

THE DISTANCE HOME tells the story of the marriage of Eve and Al, childhood neighbors in small-town South Dakota in the 1940s and ’50s. Eve, who had once set her sights on business college, encounters changed family circumstances during her senior year of high school. If she can’t follow her own dreams, she can at least marry the most eligible boy in town.

"This portrait of a quietly dysfunctional mid-century family would be fascinating on its own, but what really makes the novel stand out is the skillful way that Saunders plays with point of view."

Eve and Al’s marriage is stressful from the beginning, as Eve makes the best of living in the basement of her judgmental in-laws while her young husband, a cattle trader, spends weeks at a time on the road in ranch country. Two children are born in short order --- Leon and René --- and their increasingly bickering parents, aided and abetted by Al’s mother, soon exhibit blatant favoritism. Eve passionately defends her quiet, sensitive son, even when Al mocks him for stuttering or when, later, Leon is teased at school for pursuing dancing.

Meanwhile, both Al and his mother adore plucky, sometimes spoiled René, whom Eve secretly envies for having all of the advantages and successes she was never given as a child. And, to be fair, as René develops into a teenager, she not-so-secretly pities her mother as well as everyone else who doesn’t excel at things as skillfully as she does.

As the siblings grow, and, yes, as they both start dance lessons at a time when ballet was far from a standard pursuit, especially for boys, the stakes of their family discord become ever more apparent. Leon begins to unravel, first pulling out his hair and later abusing drugs and alcohol. As for René, she lives in fear of becoming ordinary, which in her mind would equate with failure.

This portrait of a quietly dysfunctional mid-century family would be fascinating on its own, but what really makes the novel stand out is the skillful way that Saunders plays with point of view. She easily moves back and forth among her characters’ perspectives while also --- especially near the end --- moving back and forth in time, giving readers glimpses into each character’s future. These techniques combine to build readers’ empathy, if not for every single character, then for many of them. They also illustrate, in a particularly poignant and powerful way, the interconnection of a family’s lives and the ways in which childhood trauma of various kinds helps to shape the adults those children become.

Reviewed by Norah Piehl on August 10, 2018

The Distance Home
by Paula Saunders

  • Publication Date: August 7, 2018
  • Genres: Fiction, Historical Fiction
  • Hardcover: 304 pages
  • Publisher: Random House
  • ISBN-10: 0525508740
  • ISBN-13: 9780525508748