Home or Away: Book summary and reviews of Home or Away by Kathleen West

Home or Away

by Kathleen West

Home or Away by Kathleen West X
Home or Away by Kathleen West
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Book Summary

Two friends, one Olympic dream, and the choice that stood in the way.

Once Leigh and Susy were close friends and teammates bound for Olympic hockey gold, but when Leigh's sure-fire plan to make the final roster backfired, she left everything behind to start over, including the one person who knew her secret.

Two decades later, Leigh's a successful investment banker, happily married, and the mom of a hockey prodigy, so when a career opportunity lands the family back in Minnesota, Leigh takes the shot for her kid. Back in the ultra-competitive world she left behind, the move puts her in Susy's orbit, a daily reminder of how Leigh watched from the sidelines as her former teammate went on to Olympic glory.

Despite the coldness between them, Susy can't help but hope that Leigh might lace up her skates and join her in the coaches' box—after all Leigh knows better than anyone how hard it is to be a woman in this world. Susy knows soon her daughter, Georgie, will be seen as a "girl athlete," relegated to the B team, with less support and opportunity to advance.

But Leigh believes keeping Susy at arms' length is the only way to hide her history with her former coach Jeff Carlson. When he hints of new favors in exchange for her son's ice time, Leigh is caught in the ultimate bind: come clean about what happened when she was an Olympic hopeful and risk her marriage or play Jeff's game. In a moment of desperation, Leigh realizes the one person she thought was her biggest competitor—her former teammate—might turn out to be her biggest ally.

Told with Kathleen West's trademark wit and compassion, Home or Away is a story about overcoming our pasts, confronting our futures, and the sustaining bonds of female friendship.

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Reviews

Media Reviews

"This nuanced, heartfelt novel exploring abuses of power in sports will appeal to fans of Hannah Orenstein's Head over Heels (2020) and Alena Dillon's The Happiest Girl in the World (2021)." - Booklist (starred review)

"In West's charming latest, a former Olympic hopeful moves her family back to her Minnesota hometown in hopes of giving her nine-year-old son his best chance to play hockey...West makes palpable her characters' love for the game. This offers a sincere and thoughtful study of dedication and sacrifice." - Publishers Weekly

"The book unfolds from...four characters' points of view, providing an excellent, deeply layered story that explores how ambition, hope, and dedication impact the choices people make, the secrets they hold close, and the lies they tell themselves and others. It's also about powerful women supporting each other, friendship, parenthood, marriage, attraction, sexual harassment, and the all-encompassing world of high-level youth—and Olympic—sports. An engrossing, painfully honest story about how far some people will go to chase success." - Kirkus Reviews

"A gloriously entertaining plunge into the ultra-competitive world of youth sports and the lengths we go to for the kids and game we love." - KJ Dell'Antonia, New York Times-bestselling author

This information about Home or Away was first featured in "The BookBrowse Review" - BookBrowse's membership magazine, and in our weekly "Publishing This Week" newsletter. Publication information is for the USA, and (unless stated otherwise) represents the first print edition. The reviews are necessarily limited to those that were available to us ahead of publication. If you are the publisher or author and feel that they do not properly reflect the range of media opinion now available, send us a message with the mainstream reviews that you would like to see added.

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Reader Reviews

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JHSiess

A Story About Abuse of Power Set Against the Backdrop of Competitive Sport
Author Kathleen West is a lifelong Minnesotan with more than twenty years' experience as a schoolteacher. She continues teaching English while focusing her writing on motherhood, ambition, competitive parenting, and work-life balance.

West describes Minneapolis as "the perfect place to write a hockey book. . . . Minnesota is the state of hockey." It is an integral part of the school and youth culture, and West herself is a hockey mom. Her children fell in love with the sport and she has spent a decade in hockey rinks. Even so, to pen Home or Away she had to conduct significant research to educate herself about coaching and playing hockey. In addition to the fact that "Minnesota and hocky go together," she chose to focus the story around it because children begin playing at a very young age in order to excel at it. And hockey requires players to master several different skillsets, including skating and stick handling, in addition to game strategy. West found the intensity inherent in the sport important for her characters' traits, life choices, and reactions to what they experience.

The story is told from four characters' perspectives. At the center of the tale is Leigh, who grew up in Minneapolis playing competitive hockey and, along with her good friend and teammate, Suzy, goes to Lake Placid to train and, hopefully, secure a place on the 2002 Olympic team. For Leigh, competing in the Olympics will be the culmination of years of preparation, and she is singularly focused on her goal. By the time she leaves for the summer, she is in a relationship with Charlie. When she arrives in Lake Placid, she realizes that competition for the team is even more intense than she imagined it would be, but she has attracted the attention of an assistant coach, Jeff Carlson. She believes him when he assures her that, although he does not have final decision-making power, he can definitely influence the selection of Olympic team members. Leigh is young, ambitious, and determined to achieve her goal at any cost. Still, her compromise is not enough and she listens in stunned disbelief as the team members are announced but her name is not called. She returns home to Minnesota dejected and bitter, and gives up hockey. She persuades Charlie to marry her shortly thereafter and launches her career in investment banking.

Worse, Leigh carries a terrible secret that, if revealed, could destroy the life she builds with Charlie in Florida where he works as the assistant manager of a bookstore and toils sporadically on his first novel which, unbeknownst to Leigh uncomfortably parallels her experience. In their marriage, Leigh is the primary breadwinner, and Charlie bears prime responsibility for their household and rearing their nine-year-old son, Gus. Like his mother and Leigh's brother, who coaches hockey in Minnesota, Gus loves the sport and is excited to move to a place with a more robust youth program.

West also relates the story from Gus's perspective as he maintains a "Hockey Bible" in which he chronicles his practice times, milestones, and advice received from his coaches. His consternation about competition, fitting in, and his mother's role in his placement on the team in a division for which he is not sure he is qualified, is endearing and, at times, heartbreaking. West credibly depicts his emotional struggles and voice. He enjoys hockey and knows that his mother, more than anyone, wants him to excel. But is he playing the sport because he is passionately devoted to it and fueled by the same kind of ambition his mother had? Or is he just trying to please his parents by living up to their expectations?

The story is also related from the vantage points of Charlie and Susy. Charlie is affable, devoted to his family, and a bit overwhelmed as he attempts to assimilate into the the world of hockey parents. He wants only the best for Charlie, and looks to Leigh, her brother and his fellow coaches, and the other parents for guidance since he did not play hockey. His passivity and gentle nature both attract and repel Leigh, who finds herself at a crossroads soon after relocating. She is reunited with Susy, who knows the truth about what happened in Lake Placid. She could see that Leigh's focus was not where it should be and she was not working hard enough. Suzy has remained active in the sport as a coach and mother of a talented daughter who is competing. Susy's growing friendship with Charlie alarms Leigh, who fears that she will reveal to Charlie what she knows about Leigh's past. Divorced, Susy finds herself increasingly drawn to Charlie ("the nicest guy in the universe" who looks "like a literal movie star") and frustrated by Leigh's actions and the way Susy believes she takes Charlie for granted.

Leigh learns that Jeff has been accused of abusing young, vulnerable female athletes that he coached after that lifechanging summer in Lake Placid, and she is asked to provide information about her experiences. Jeff's fundamental character traits remain the same as two decades earlier. He is still overbearing and manipulative, and convinces Leigh that he holds the power to influence her son's success as a competitive player. The secret she has kept for so many years weighs heavily on her, as does her guilt, as she debates whether to accede to Jeff's demands or risk everything and everyone that she loves by telling the truth.

The most compelling and emotionally resonant aspect of Home or Away is West's exploration of the power dynamics between male coaches and female athletes. West places Leigh and Susy in the midst of the emergence of women's hockey in the mid to late 1990's, culminating in Susy earning a place on the U.S. Olympic team when Leigh did not. Seeing Susy again -- an Olympic medalist -- churns up feelings that Leigh has refused to confront for twenty years. Coupled with pressure from both Jeff and other women who want her to speak her truth in order to ensure that Jeff is held accountable for his behavior, Leigh must finally reconcile her past at the risk of the life she has built. She is not just wracked with guilt and afraid of the fallout from having the truth exposed. She is also proud and determined not to let her parents and brother down again. After all, her father created a place in her parents' home where her Olympic medal was going to be displayed and that place has remained empty for twenty years. It represents an empty space deep within Leigh where she has been unable to forgive herself. As West notes, "She refuses to let people in or admit weakness" and her stoicism blinds her to the truth about her behavior in Lake Placid. But at her core, Leigh wants to do the right thing, which forces her to grapple with a stark reality: she has the unique power to aid the young women who have lodged complaints about Jeff's abuse of power. West deftly examines the nuances of the #MeToo storyline from the viewpoints of Leigh and Susy, as well as the voice of Leigh's new friend, Nicole, a savvy and assertive attorney. She also compassionately depicts Charlie's emotional turmoil as pieces of the puzzling truth about his wife and her decisions begin falling into place. Charlie and Leigh eventually grapple with whether their marriage can withstand betrayals and lies through understanding, forgiveness, and abiding love and respect.

Home or Away is at once a charming look at family life in America's heartland and a searing study of the pressures budding athletes feel to succeed, with internal and external stressors weighing upon them. Between chapters, West inserts emails from the officious team manager to the "Listen Heights Hockey Fam" which are darkly hilarious and frighteningly realistic, demonstrating the extent to which some parents become obsessed with their children's athletic pursuits. And although West successfully centers the tale around hockey, she could have fleshed out her universal themes within the context of any competitive sport.

West's characters are multi-layered and believable, and Leigh's conundrum is both timely and, sadly, timeless. Her dilemmas are relatable, and West skillfully makes every character both flawed and sympathetic so that readers will find themselves taking Leigh, Charlie, Susy and, in particular, little Gus into their hearts and hoping that they can successfully navigate the crisis into which they are thrust.

Home or Away is entertaining, engrossing, and, best of all, thought-provoking.

Thanks to NetGalley for an Advance Reader's Copy of the book.

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Author Information

Kathleen West

Kathleen West is a veteran school teacher. She graduated with a degree in English from Macalester College and holds a master's degree in literacy education from the University of Minnesota. She lives in Minneapolis with her A+ human family and two B- dogs.

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