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.