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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.

Q&A with Jane Smiley, SOME LUCK

I attended a Q&A with Jane Smiley at Politics & Prose earlier this fall, and since I just reviewed her new book Some Luck, I thought I’d post the Q&A now.

Smiley calls Some Luck an “old person’s way of writing a novel” – with the years progressing evenly, as “happy and tragic events came and went”.

Q: A lot has happened since you started writing. Has it affected your writing or could you have written the same book 20 years ago?

A: I think so. I came up with this idea 5 years ago, decided on a setting, settled on Walter and Rosanna, gave the kids personalities, and set them on their way. The book is mostly made up of history and gossip.

Q: A lot of your books have an agricultural motif. Have you lived on a farm?

A: No, but I lived in Ames – what’s the difference? I moved to Iowa City at age 22. I was interested in farming, the ecology of farming in our lifetime. If I had gone to UVA, I would have gone down another path.

Q: You used to teach. When you taught, did it affect your writing, and did your writing affect your teaching?

A: Yes. Once I was writing a story, and teaching undergrads, and I was giving tips for storywriting and in the process came up with how to move on in the story.

Q: Do you write thinking about how the book will sound out loud? Do you ever wish you’d changed a word?

A: Yes, in fact I did tonight during my reading.

Q: A Thousand Acres had King Lear as its background. Did anything inspire Some Luck?

A: No, I just wanted to fill this title: A Hundred Years. This was much more free form. I knew where I was headed. I knew Frank would go to war and the farm would change and someone would stay on the farm. It had boundaries, but not structure like King Lear.

Q: Some Luck is the first of a trilogy. Are the other two books finished?

A: Yes. I need to fiddle with the last 5 years.

Q: Which books influenced you as a girl? Little House on the Prairie?

A: That series was read to me as a kid. The books that had the most influence on me were the ones I read as a 13-14 year old: Giants in the Earth, David Copperfield, The Web of Life.

Here is a video of the reading.

SOME LUCK by Jane Smiley

This fall, Jane Smiley released Some Luck, the first in a trilogy about a midwestern family, the Langdons. Smiley will ultimately publish three books about the family covering the years 1920-2020, with each chapter dedicated to one year. This first installment – Some Luck – covers the years 1920-1953.

The Langdons are made up of a couple – Walter and Rosanna – and their five children Frank, Joey, Lilian, Henry and Claire. They live on a farm in a rural town in Iowa called Denby. When the book opens, Walter and Rosanna are young parents, and Walter is trying to make a living as a farmer. Some Luck follows the family through the births of the five children, the Depression, World War II, and the 50s, as the kids grow up and start to have their own lives. Frank spends four years in the Army in Europe, where he escapes death many times and sees the horror of the war up close. Joey stays close to home, learning how to farm and introducing his own ideas about seeds, harvests, and machinery. Lillian marries and moves away to Washington DC, opening up the scope of the book beyond Iowa and the war.

In Some Luck, Smiley creates a memorable, diverse family, exploring each member’s inward feelings, disappointments, and hopes.    Just like in life, some years are more momentous (births, deaths, marriages) than others (Fourth of July parties, snowstorms). But each contributes important details and texture about the Langdons and their extended family. Some of the quieter and more domestic passages proved to be the ones I remembered best. I also enjoyed the historical details that gave a glimpse into daily life on a farm 100 years ago.

As it should, with 2/3 still to go, Some Luck feels unfinished. The first book covers the life arc of the family patriarch, so the closure of his story at the end is natural, but there are still many characters with many life stages ahead. The book had a slow start for me (lots of farming) but I gradually found myself getting more and more engrossed. I am looking forward to the release of books 2 and 3 so that I can pick up where I left off with the Langdons. I miss them already.

I listened to Some Luck on audio for the most part, and the performance was just OK for me. The narrator had a very particular way of talking, and it was sort of simplistic, the way you’d talk to a child. That narration was OK for the early chapters about little kids, but it felt out of sync with the more serious parts of the book. I also didn’t like some of the different tones she took on for different characters – I’d rather she had just read all the voices the same. I think I enjoyed the parts of the book that I read more than those I listened to.

Overall – strong start to what promises to be a rewarding trilogy. Tomorrow, I will post my notes from a Q&A I attended with Jane Smiley this fall.