Thursday, August 2, 2012

Book Review: A Simple Thing by Kathleen McCleary

A bit about the book: I read Kathleen McCleary's first novel House and Home just after it was published in 2008. In short, I loved it. In it, McCleary told the story of Ellen Flanagan, an Oregon wife, mother, and coffee shop owner, who is struggling to keep the very thing that holds her family together -- their home -- as her life comes apart at the seams.

The protagonist of McCleary's new novel, A Simple Thing, finds her life falling apart all around her, as well. Although there are similarities -- the Pacific Northwest as setting, a strong female main character -- McCleary has also written a very different novel, yet one every bit as engaging as her first.

Susannah Delaney leaves her home in New Jersey and moves with her two children to the fictional (at least, according to Wikipedia's list of San Juan Islands) Sounder Island, off the coast of Washington state. It is here that they seek solace from the Troubles with Katie (capitalization intentional). In truth, although Susannah's oldest Katie has her issues, her son Quinn has his share, as well. While Katie dives into typical teenage problems head first, eleven-year-old Quinn struggles with being teased for being different. Katie has issues by choice; Quinn, by nature.

Susannah decides that the very thing they need is a break from the rat race in suburban New England. She packs them up, leaving her husband behind to work, and moves them thousands of miles across the United States, hoping geography alone will prove an antidote of sorts.

McCleary pairs Susannah's story with that of Betty, who moved to the island as a young woman with a new husband. Little has changed on Sounder since that move in the 1950s. Although the internet and some solar-generated electricity has come to the island, Betty largely lives now as she did then. Food is mostly home-grown, some bathrooms are outdoors, and no 24-hour superstores exist. Betty's story coincides perfectly with Susannah's, their problems different but providing a link between the women.

Why you want to read it: Although McCleary fictionalized the name of the island where Susannah and her children move, the sense of place is strong in A Simple Thing McCleary describes this still-mostly-wild area with a loving pen. The ferry-only transportation, snow-capped Mount Baker in the distance, and the wondrous orcas swimming alongside their boats all create a strong identity for the San Juan Islands.

In addition to the strong setting, McCleary has also written a tale full of characters to love. Susannah is flawed, yet immensely empathetic; her children frustrating, but endearing; and the island residents perfect foils for them all. Readers will at once sympathize with the novel's characters and wish for them positive change and healing.

McCleary also formulates an engaging plot with the combination of Betty's story just before and throughout her years on Sounder and Susannah's present-day island story. As stated before, their tales are very different, but the same theme prevails -- escape from the existing world, a search for something more. Whether or not Sounder will prove to be the source of that "something more" is the novel's essential question (and therefore, one I won't answer!).

The bottom line: McCleary has written two wonderful, woman-centered novels. A Simple Thing will transport you to a different way of American life, delight you with its setting, and engage you in the trials of its well-rounded characters. Then, you'll have to go in search of a copy of House and Home (which you can currently snap up from Amazon for $6 in paperback or $3.99 for Kindle).

About the author: Kathleen McCleary is the author of one previous novel. She has also had a successful career as a journalist. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, Good Housekeeping, and everything in between. She also wrote a long-time column for For more about McCleary, you can visit her website, follow her on Twitter, like her on Facebook, or read her online journal.

TLC Book Tour Info: I am pleased to say this post is part of a blog tour for A Simple Thing via TLC Book Tours. The tour began last week and will continue through the middle of August. Click over to TLC's tour page for A Simple Thing to see a list of links to the other posts and find out what other bloggers have to say about the novel. McCleary will also appear on Book Club Girl on Air on August 21 at 6 p.m. to discuss the novel.


  1. I really enjoyed House and Home - glad to see this new book is just as good!

    Thanks for being on the tour.

    1. It absolutely is just as good. Thanks for having me! Looking forward to future titles from McCleary.

    2. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. Wow! I'm so glad you loved it! I love following an author as they publish books. Makes you almost feel like you're friends. :)

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