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Book Reviews / Books

The Leaving Season Book Review

02.24.23
The Leaving Season by Kelly McMasters

I’ve long had a penchant for memoirs – the intimate nature of the narratives; the candid look at the lives of writers that we otherwise wouldn’t see, and the nuanced vignettes – good and bad – that come together to make up the messiness of life. I’d recently read Wanting, a collection of essays written by women about desire, when one of the book’s editors, Kelly McMasters, reached out and asked if I might like a copy of her memoir, The Leaving Season. It came with high praise from Joanna Rakoff – an author who has become my go-to for reading recommendations of late – and so I gladly agreed, and earlier this week, taking advantage of a damp and dismal day in Bondi, I curled up in bed and started it.

The Leaving Season Book Review

A book that I loved as soon as I saw its cover, I knew little about either the author or the plot of the book before I began it, but was soon swept away to the life of McMasters navigating New York in her early twenties. Her first essay includes a harrowing account of the deadly attack on the World Trade Centre – an event that left McMasters in such a state of shock that in the throes of fleeing the area, she attempted to call her boss to let her know she wouldn’t be coming into work that day.

What follows is the beginning and blossoming of her relationship with a painter who lives in an art studio; and while to begin with McMasters keeps the lease on her Brooklyn apartment, they soon forge a life together and go on to get married – before moving to rural Pennsylvania to buy a dilapidated farmhouse.

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In a way I’ve not seen before in other memoirs – McMasters spares the readers a lot of details; we hear nothing about her wedding, and she glazes over much of her two pregnancies and the respective birth of her sons; but what she gives us instead is an achingly beautiful insight into the intricacies of the everyday life on the farm – away from the urban grey slate of the city. The heads of honeysuckle, the piles of still-steaming cow shit, the loamy smells of the nearby landscape, the latticework of beams that were revealed after friends helped them tear down a ceiling, the hard huffs of deer in the woods; the explosion of green in spring.

Against this blur of rural life, we witness McMasters’ daydream come to fruition as she opens a bookstore in the nearby town, and we too become aware of the irrevocable and chilled distance between her and her husband, but – as she laments in the book; she could cope with a failed business, just not a failed marriage.   

A book that you want to simultaneously savour and tear through in a single sitting, so engrossed was I in The Leaving Season that it took me just over a day to read it cover to cover. Intimate, vivid, and beautifully layered, it’s a searing portrayal of loneliness, life, and longing, and is undoubtedly one of the best memoirs I’ve ever read.

The Leaving Season Summary

Kelly McMasters found herself in her mid-thirties living her fantasy: she’d moved with her husband, a painter, from New York City to rural Pennsylvania, where their children roamed idyllic acres in rainboots and diapers. The pastoral landscape and the bookshop they opened were restorative at first, for her and her marriage. But soon, she was quietly plotting her escape.

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In The Leaving Season, McMasters chronicles the heady rush of falling in love and carving out a life in the city, the slow dissolution of her relationship in an isolated farmhouse, and the complexities of making a new home for herself and her children as a single parent. She delves into the tricky and often devastating balance between seeing and being seen; loss and longing; desire and doubt; and the paradox of leaving what you love in order to survive.

Whether considering masculinity in the countryside through the life of a freemartin calf, the vulnerability of new motherhood in the wake of a car crash, or the power of community pulsing through an independent bookshop, The Leaving Season finds in every ending a new beginning.

Further reading

Since finishing The Leaving Season, I’ve been devouring Kelly’s gorgeous Notes on a Bookshop column in The Paris Review.

Kelly McMasters Author Bio

Kelly McMasters is a Fulbright Specialist, former bookshop owner, and an author and essayist. She is the author of the forthcoming The Leaving Season: A Memoir-in-Essays (WW Norton, 2023) and co-editor of the forthcoming Wanting: Women Writing About Desire (Catapult, 2023).

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