Tag Archives: Early Warning

GOLDEN AGE by Jane Smiley

I did it! I made it to the end of Golden Age, last book of the Jane Smiley century trilogy (the first two were Some Luck and Early Warning). The books are about the extended family and progeny of the Langdon family of Denby, Iowa. Each chapter covers a year in the century spanning 1920-2020. Some Luck covered the Depression, World War II and the 50s, with most action centered in Iowa until the young generation started moving away. Early Warning took us through the 80s, touching on Vietnam and the 60s, as the family proliferated through marriages and children were born. Golden Age goes from 1987 to 2020, where the Langdons’ story ends (for now, anyway).

First, I will talk about Golden Age, and then the trilogy overall. Golden Age was my least favorite of the three books. Smiley got a little too political for me. The Iraq war, 9/11, the mortgage crisis, global warming – these plot tentpoles are each seen through the lens of Smiley’s progressive politics, a little too conveniently: a family member dies on one of the planes headed toward the Pentagon, another suffers PTSD post-Afghanistan, family fortunes are lost in 2006 during the mortgage crisis. It all felt a little heavy-handed to me. But like the others in the series, Golden Age is also full of smaller, quieter moments – the moments that make up a life, or a whole bunch of lives. This makes Smiley’s chronicles so poignant. One character in her 70s is asked whether she thinks she has lived through a “golden age”, and she decides that it was a patchwork of sensual memories – stars, a pan of shortbread, her husband – that made her life a golden age, not the global events – wonderful or terrible – that had taken place during her lifetime.

Golden Age, like the period it covers, is darker, more ominous and much less hopeful than the two books that came before it. The last four chapters – 2016-2020 – are downright scary, with glimpses of a dystopia brought about by the accelerating impact of climate change and vigilante violence that cannot be addressed due to budget shortfalls. Scary stuff. I think I would have preferred Smiley end the series when she actually finished the books. The futuristic stuff was a bit too bleak for me.

Reading the trilogy, however, was a very positive experience. As I said in my Some Luck review, I am in awe of Smiley’s imagination, and how she layered this rich, enormous fictional family over her factual knowledge of farming, the environment, politics, the CIA, horse-riding, PTSD… the list goes on and on. It was an admirable experiment, and one Smiley executed beautifully. There were some characters who I enjoyed more than others – Claire, Andy, Jesse – and some who befuddled me – Michael and Richie, Arthur – and others who were just unpleasant. (Janet!). But I feel deeply embedded in their collective lives, and I can’t really believe it’s all over.

I know reading these three books is an investment and it seems kind of overwhelming, but I really recommend the series. It’s a rewarding experience and quite enjoyable at the same time. A crash course in American history!

Like the two books before it, I listened to Golden Age on audio. I had issues with the narrator, Lorelei King, during the first installment, but I got so used to her by the end that those complaints went away. I now can’t imagine having experienced these three books another way. King must have gotten to know these characters so deeply – I’d love to talk to her about what she thought of them. 14 discs is a long time (and that’s just the last book!) but I enjoyed them quite a bit. The brevity of the chapters and even the various threads in each chapter made the audio move along nicely, so even when there were some sections that dragged, they were over quickly.

Great work, Jane Smiley. I hope these books are read widely and for many years to come.

Depressing-o-meter: Too sweeping to be really depressing. 4 out of 10.

EARLY WARNING by Jane Smiley

I love sweeping family dramas, and Jane Smiley’s three-volume chronicle of the Langdon family is basically the definition of a sweeping family drama. It covers 100 years, with each chapter devoted to one year. The first book, Some Luck, opens in 1920, and the second book, Early Warning, picks up in 1953. I reviewed Some Luck last year (review here), and just finished Early Warning, which came out in April.

The Langdon family consists of Walter and Rosanna, who live on a farm in Iowa, and their 5 kids, and their grandchildren, and eventually their great-grandchildren. (The family gets so big that Smiley includes a family tree at the beginning to keep everyone straight). When Early Warning opens, Walter has just died and America is in the throes of its glory days, the 50s. All but one of the Langdon children have left the farm and moved away, while Joe, the second oldest, has followed in his father’s footsteps as a farmer. Each chapter moves the family’s narrative along by focusing on a few different characters. Sometimes Smiley’s sections are about momentous events, like deaths or weddings, but sometimes she isolates a smaller moment that perfectly crystalizes a relationship or a character’s emotional development. Smiley isn’t the warmest writer in terms of showing emotion, but she certainly allows her readers to develop feelings for her characters.

I am sort of in awe of Smiley’s imagination. She came up with this whole family, and the twists and turns each member goes through, and all of the little details about their lives, in her head. (I know, this is what writers do, but seriously.). And she weaves in politics, and fashion, and the CIA, and the Reverend Jones, and Vietnam, and the Kennedys and Carter and Reagan and so much more. It’s like Forrest Gump, but good.

I’ve seen these Langdons age, and some of them die, over 800 pages, and I feel pretty attached to them at this point. I’m definitely looking forward to volume 3, Golden Age, which comes out in October.

I listened to Early Warning on audio, just as I did with Some Luck. The narration has grown on me. Lorelei King has a very distinct voice that sometimes doesn’t fit with the characters she is narrating, but I’ve gotten used to her and now totally associate her with the Langdon trilogy. I finished the last 60 pages or so in print, and I found myself missing the audio and saying the words in my mind the way Lorelei would (which is the opposite of what I wrote in my Some Luck review). It’s a long series, and I admire her stamina!

Overall, strong second installment. Can’t wait for the third.