Contemporary, Fiction, Social Themes

Home or Away by Kathleen West

Every season I peruse thousands upon thousands of titles from all the major publishers, and some smaller ones, to decide which books to bring into the store. In the 6 years that I’ve been the adult book buyer, I have never come across an adult book featuring women hockey players. Not once. Never. And if you’ve read anything on this blog so far, you may know that I am a former hockey goalie and am a touch obsessed with women’s hockey, and ice hockey in general.

Synopsis

From the publisher marketing:
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.

Review (with a long intro about my love of hockey)

The first novel I ever wrote, or mostly wrote, was about a female hockey goalie set in 2006. I wrote 200 pages in two weeks during my senior year of college in 2010 and it was garbage. But I’d been given the writing advice “write the book that you would like to read,” and I realized that all I wanted to read growing up, besides historical fiction, would have been a book about a young female hockey goalie. I’d settle for just a girl playing hockey but a goalie would have been ideal. The book I wrote would have been YA and 2010 was when YA was first starting to really be tour de force in the publishing world.

As I went through college and young adulthood, I became very particular about the type of books I liked to read. Fantasy and historical fiction was always high on the list but I bemoaned the plethora of books about marriages falling apart and family secrets. My family has enough of those, I don’t really read about them (you’d be very hard pressed to find any reviews that fit that description on this blog thus far). But if a book also has hockey, let alone female hockey players, I’ll read it, subgenre be damned.

In my hockey and skating days, I’ve dealt with a lot of shit from asshole misogynists who think girls can’t play hockey. I had a guy at Pure Hockey tell me that I didn’t know my own skate size and rolled his eyes when I bought pink laces. I’ve been told, while correcting a guy’s interpretation of icing, that girls who like hockey are just puck bunnies. I’ve known guys would would rather break their ankles at a public skate than let me tie their skates for them (there is a passage about skate tying and I felt so seen I took a photo of it and sent it to friends). In my days as a bookstore manager, I’ve got very used to people being confused about my love of sports, until we got a new store owner who is also a former hockey player. We keep a hockey stick at work for anger management as retail managers in the time of Covid.

I live and breathe hockey during the winter. And summer. And spring and fall. All the time, really. Ask me my pro-hockey loyalties and I’ll give you a long and complicated run down of the history of the Hershey Bears as an AHL team and why picking an NHL team is so hard (there are three teams’ jerseys in my closet). But I live in the greater Philly area and my Christmas tree topper is Gritty with a Santa hat and pink crown, so interpret that as you will.

In Leigh, Susy, and Georgie, I see so much of myself, mostly in Leigh and her quest to put her past behind her and perfectionist nature. In Susy, the desperation to help a friend understand how the past should be reassessed. In Georgie, a young girl just looking to play the game she loves as best as she can. And in Charlie, my own husband who loves nothing more than going a run. There is a perfect line about Charlie’s runner body and Leigh’s attempt to get back into running and her leggings and, well, any woman married to a runner will be able to relate!

I see Home or Away as the entry point to my new reading phase, one filled primarily with fiction over nonfiction, and with more adult themes and relationships, and kids. I still don’t think I’ll pick up too many books that focus on secrets in relationships (they just make me uncomfortable) but I don’t actively avoid family stories anymore. While childfree by choice, at this point in my thirties I do find it fun to read stories now with kids, and Gus and Georgie are two of my new favorites. Their friendship is sweet and supportive and healthy. Not once do their parents or any other grownups make snide comments about boys and girls and being friends.

The propulsion of the story is a #MeToo reckoning coming for sleezebag coach Jeff Carlson and how Leigh handles her past with him. While we’re given insight into Gus’s hockey progress and Charlie’s deep dive into the world of youth hockey, as well as his own writing career, it’s Leigh and her decisions and actions that drive us towards her inevitable meltdown and subsequent realization and growth. It pleases me to report that we get a very satisfying conclusion to the storyline.

While I would have loved even more hockey references throughout and I anxiously read this book because of the hockey nerd I am, it’s a very enjoyable work of family fiction that just about any reader will enjoy, not just the hockey obsessives like me. But for those who can talk late ’90s, early ’00s women’s hockey with the best of them, you’ll squeal with delight at each Easter egg and reference, just as I did.

Rating: 8 out of 10

Where to Buy
In the USA, I recommend purchasing through BookShop or your local independent, in the UK, and many other parts of the world, I recommend Blackwell’s, and if neither of those cover where you live, I recommend checking out your local booksellers! Independent bookstores are vital parts of every local community and I wholly endorse supporting your local stores versus Amazon.

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