We Can’t Go Home Again

Biting and relatable, Kate Christensen’s latest novel grapples with midlife, trauma, and climate change.

By Britany Robinson | March 13, 2024

Home is a tenuous place in Welcome Home, Stranger, the newest novel by Kate Christensen ’86. And not just in the clichéd way of the rom-com protagonist returning from big city life to face the absurdity (but also the sweetness) of her small-town upbringing.

Yes, Rachel (an environmental journalist who fled Maine for D.C.) does run into the married ex-boyfriend she might still love, after coming home for the first time in many years, following the death of her mother. And yes, they do lock eyes across the table of a dinner party, their enduring chemistry simmering beneath the surface of awkward conversation. (His wife is there, too.)

But there’s more darkness than sweetness here. Kate leans on familiar tropes of the can’t-go-home-again narrative, but then charges past clichés. She writes with stinging honesty about midlife, childhood trauma, and existential dread on the macrolevel, a can’t-go-home-again crisis for all living things on a warming planet.

“I feel like a veritable lunatic,” says Rachel. At the awkward dinner party, she avoids the food and sticks to sparkling water. “I’m the woman who knows too much to eat anything, thanks to a man who never actually wanted me.”

Rachel’s ex-husband was a scientist for the FDA. He loves Rachel and only wants to protect her from things like “bisphenol A-tainted canned tomato sauce with glyphosate-soaked wheat pasta,” but he left her for a man and is now dying of ALS. Their relationship remains the healthiest one in her life.

Finding romantic love is often central to the “home again” narrative, but the most interesting relationship in this story is the one between Rachel and her sister, a stay-at-home mom who is furious at Rachel for not coming home sooner, while their mother was dying. Rachel and Celeste share similar scars from their dead mother’s narcissism, but they’ve coped in opposing ways and must excavate some truths about themselves and each other in order to heal.

In Welcome Home, Stranger, characters are allowed to remain flawed and flailing. Rachel is both, but she has enough self-awareness to allow readers access to the big picture beyond her personal problems: our world is changing in terrifying ways, and there’s nothing we can do about it. “It’s too late for algae; ice analysis is only confirming the presence of a terminal disease; and geoengineering is insane, desperate, and dangerous,” she says. “It’s too late to do anything with all of this information scientists have been gathering and analyzing.”

In Welcome Home, Stranger, we’re not asked to hope for happy endings. There is beauty in the crumbling. 

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