The kids get younger and the stakes get higher in Kathleen West's latest forensic examination of suburban moms. In "Home or Away" she takes on the Big One: Youth sports. Youth hockey, to be exact. In Minnesota.
Leigh Mackenzie thinks she knows exactly what she's in for when she returns with her husband and son to the western Minneapolis suburbs after nearly 20 years in Florida. She was once a hockey superstar, a national champion with the Gophers and a Team USA standout, guaranteed to make the Olympic team. Only she didn't make the Olympic team.
In the wake of that catastrophic disappointment, she dropped her skates and didn't look back, channeling her cutthroat instincts into investment banking. She also ghosted her best friend, Susy Walker, who did make the team and has two silver medals to show for it. But guess who's one of the coaches on Leigh's son's team?
Not only Susy but Jeff Carlson, the coach who seduced Leigh during the Olympic trials with the promise that he had influence over the selection process. Never mind that she was practically engaged to Charlie, the earnest Matthew McConaughey lookalike who worshiped her. "The Olympics was the point of everything," Leigh explains to anyone who would question her actions — and to herself.
Twenty years on, Jeff has another proposition for her: Back him up in a sexual harassment lawsuit and he can, yes, get her son on the coveted Squirt A team. Wouldn't Leigh do anything to help her kid? Well, yes, she would. So young Gus makes the team, Charlie the stay-at-home dad becomes Charlie the hockey-obsessed dad, Susy tries to reconnect with Leigh, and Jeff hovers over everything like a bad aroma.
Now the decision to return to Minnesota — ostensibly so Gus could take his shot in the State of Hockey — weighs heavily on Leigh. She feels the pull of the sport she loved and abandoned. She is estranged from yet inextricably bound to Susy, who knows about her youthful indiscretion — the revelation of which would surely rupture her marriage. (If Susy's friendship with Charlie, born of their mutual love of running, doesn't rupture it first.)
Whether in the betrayal of Charlie, the jilting of Susy or the callous lack of support for the young harassment victims, Leigh's tortured justifications — most egregiously, that she has nothing in common with those women because she willingly engaged with Jeff — threaten to turn her into a cold-hearted villain. Yet she "deserves to love the game again," in Susy's words, and we want that for her, too. Leigh is the most fully realized and compelling character in West's catalog; recognizable, if not exactly relatable.
West captures the kid hockey scene with blade-sharp precision (particularly in the chirpy-yet-bullying missives from the team's parent-manager). And although she again relies on chapters told variously through different characters, Leigh's voice rises above the roar of the crowd.
Cynthia Dickison is a Star Tribune designer.
Home or Away
By: Kathleen West.
Publisher: Berkley, 384 pages, $27.
Event: Book launch, 6:30 p.m. March 29, Modern Well, hosted by Magers & Quinn, $10. Register at https://bit.ly/3KD7a7Y.