Tuesday, November 4, 2014

"Some Luck," by Jane Smiley

Jane Smiley’s writing is both well respected and popular. I have read and enjoyed several of her novels, my favorites being the novels “A Thousand Acres” (her best known book) and “Moo.” Smiley has made a point of writing in many different genres of fiction, including historical fiction, comedy, and mystery, along with more straightforward literary fiction. Her subject matter varies widely as well. Her new novel, “Some Luck” (Knopf, 2014) is a family saga, and is projected to be the first of a trilogy. The phrase “family saga” often intimates a bestseller-ish, predictable novel, but Smiley’s version, although already a bestseller, is not predictable. It is beautifully written and moving. It takes place on a farm in Iowa between 1920, the year the main character -- Frank -- is born, and 1953. We know which year it is at any given time, because Smiley writes one chapter for each year, and the title of that chapter is the year. Although Frank is at the center of the novel, many other family members are equally important; his parents, Rosanna and Walter Langdon, their own parents, their other children, and various relatives, neighbors, friends, classmates, lovers and spouses all have their places in this novel. Most of the story takes place on the farm and surrounding land and in nearby small towns, but some characters venture out into the wider world, most notably when Frank fights in Europe during World War II, and when some family members move to New York and others to California. Through the lives of these characters, we experience the important and influential – for better or for worse – events of the time, including the Depression, World War II, and the McCarthy era. There are plenty of events moving the plot along: successes, failures, romances, marriages, births, deaths, trips, danger, physical and mental illnesses, and more. But the greatest strength of the novel is -- as it should be, in my opinion -- in its very individual characters, their relationships, the ways they deal with hardship, the importance of family, and the particular connection that farmers have with the land. This novel starts a little slowly, but it is well worth persisting, because the book is a wonderful one, a realistic one, an engrossing one, a moving one, sometimes a heartbreaking one, and arguably a masterpiece. I look forward with eagerness to the second and third installments of the trilogy. I am glad Jane Smiley is quite a prolific writer, because that probably means we won’t have to wait more than two or three years for the next book.
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