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Originally published Monday, January 30, 2012 at 5:00 AM

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Book review

Kristin Hannah's 'Home Front': a military family's struggles

Bainbridge Island author Kristin Hannah's new novel "Home Front" tells the story of a troubled Army helicopter pilot whose family life gets even more complicated when she's deployed to Iraq. Hannah reads Tuesday at Third Place Books in Lake Forest Park, and Wednesday at Liberty Bay Books in Poulsbo.

Special to The Seattle Times

Author appearance

Kristin Hannah

The author of "Home Front" will read at 7 p.m. Tuesday at Third Place Books in Lake Forest Park. She will read at 6:30 p.m. Wednesday at Liberty Bay Books in Poulsbo (360-779-5909; www.libertybaybooks.com)
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'Home Front'

by Kristin Hannah

St. Martin's Press, 390 pp., $27.99

Northwest author Kristin Hannah is spinning her familiar magic in a new novel — "Home Front" — that may have readers emptying their Kleenex boxes as they take in the story of troubled mom Jolene Zarkades and her family.

Unlike many purveyors of women's fiction today, Hannah is less interested in the romantic chase than in what happens afterward, in that era of which the fairy tales tell us ... and they lived happily ever after. Hannah's families have their triumphs and their tragedies, but the author knows that perfect happiness is ultimately boring. And there is nothing boring about the families Hannah concocts in her books, which are best-sellers at least partly because readers can relate to all the little frictions, as well as the much bigger problems that beset real people.

The new "Home Front" takes a different turn from Hannah's previous work, focusing on the milieu of the military: Jolene is an Army Black Hawk helicopter pilot who loves to fly and feels most at home in the air. She also has a terrible family history (her parents' hellish marriage ended in a fatal car crash when Jolene was 17), and has a troubled relationship with Michael, her workaholic lawyer husband. Jolene and Michael have two much-adored daughters — a charming if screechy 4-year-old, and a touchy 12-year-old with a master's degree in eye-rolling and a vocabulary consisting of "Whatever."

The precarious balance of the family tips over when Jolene and her fellow pilot, her best buddy, Tami, are suddenly deployed to Iraq. They're flying 14-hour daily missions in 125-degree heat, picking up the bodies of blown-apart fellow soldiers and returning to a base that is constantly under fire. But they conceal all this from their families with cheery letters home and smiling photos.

With Jolene away, Michael has to step up to the task of parenting, while assembling a complicated legal defense — for an Iraq combat veteran with severe post-traumatic stress disorder. Learning about the effects of PTSD gives Michael some deeply worrying insights into what his wife is undergoing in the combat zone. Then comes the event that tests and changes his family, and Tami, forever.

Hannah's narrative is gritty, tough-minded and unsentimental. Family members say unforgettably hurtful things to each other; they love each other, but they let each other down. They make mistakes, irretrievable ones. And yet, they find a way to love each other and go on. There are no picture-perfect endings; the losses in "Home Front" are real. But so are the gains, beautifully detailed in what is probably Hannah's best work yet.

Melinda Bargreen is the former classical music critic for The Seattle Times. She's a freelance contributor to the Times and reviews concerts for 98.1 Classical KING-FM (www.king.org).

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