A Hundred Years in the Life of an American Family

October 26 2016
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Ever since I read A THOUSAND ACRES, I have loved the work of Jane Smiley. That novel has it all: love, lust, rivalry, betrayal, loss, grief, conflict, wisdom. It reworks Shakespeare’s tale of King Lear—that “fond, foolish old man.” By locating her story in a farming community in contemporary Iowa, Smiley shows us how all the best stories are timeless. They deal with what it is to be human, to find our way through a world that is often hostile and always confusing.

In all her novels, Jane Smiley’s insights into what it is to be a father, a daughter, a lover, part of a family, are always illuminating. So I couldn’t wait to dive into SOME LUCK, the first of  three superb novels that trace the fortunes of an American family from the 1920s into the future. Together, thee novels make up the Last One Hundred Years series. Reading them is like stepping through a portal into the real world of living, breathing, loving, quarrelling people.

Pull up a chair and prepare to be enthralled.

Book one of the series, SOME LUCK, opens in 1920 with Walter and Rosanna Langdon, a young married couple who go on to have six children. It is the fates of these sons and daughters, their spouses and offspring, that we follow for the duration of the trilogy.

Smiley is fascinated by marriage. In SOME LUCK we see the many complexities of married life, the demands of children, the stresses of economic struggles, all against the background of a rapidly changing society. At one point, the father, Walter, muses about the way marriage has shaped him and carved his place in the world. He thinks about the eternal conflict between the needs of the self and the needs of family:

“Maybe the measure of what, over the years, he had held back for himself was the measure of what saved him.”

The cast of characters in SOME LUCK is vast, but never confusing. Smiley’s strength as a novelist is to make us care, and care deeply, about Frank, Joe, Mary, Lillian, Henry, and Claire—and their parents, Walter and Rosanna. In language that is deliberately straightforward and accessible, the individual characters navigate their lives and their relationships to each other over three decades.

SOME LUCK ends in 1953, which is where the second book, EARLY WARNING, takes up, and then GOLDEN AGE closes out the Last Hundred Years trilogy. We’ve lived through the Langdons’ experience of war, of grief, of murky government dealings. Above all, we’ve seen and shared the enduring strength of family bonds.

I’ve been pressing these novels into my friends’ hands ever since I read them. I love Smiley’s novels so much that A THOUSAND ACRES actually served as the inspiration for my own forthcoming novel, THE YEARS THAT FOLLOWED.

I highly recommend her writing.

Some Luck
Jane Smiley

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