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.