Some Luck by Jane Smiley

Reviewed by Rebecca Foster

smileyJane Smiley’s thirteenth novel returns to the winning formula of her 1991 Pulitzer Prize winner, A Thousand Acres, which transplanted King Lear to an Iowan farm. Some Luck is the first volume in ‘The Last Hundred Years’ trilogy, an old-fashioned saga about the Langdons, an Iowa farming family, over the century beginning in 1920. Walter Langdon, 25, has recently returned from the First World War in France. His twenty-year-old wife, Rosanna, has German ancestry. In chronological chapters, one per year from 1920 to 1953, Smiley follows this ordinary couple and their six children as they navigate America’s social changes and re-evaluate their principles during decades of upheaval.

Within the confines of its third-person omniscient point-of-view, the novel shifts between the perspectives of each main character, especially the children. Most of the first chapter, for instance, is from the perspective of baby Frank. One might hear echoes of the opening of James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man in lines like ‘The spoon jumped away from him, and there was noise—his own noise. … When Papa touched him, he could feel the roughness of his fingertips and palms against the bare baby skin.’

‘Each [child] is his or her own little universe,’ Rosanna’s mother observes, and one of Smiley’s chief achievements here is to give each Langdon child a distinct personality. Frank is resourceful and rebellious, determined to escape Iowa and make his mark on the wider world. Walter would love for him to take over the family farm, yet Frank serves as a sniper in the war and then spies on Russian collaborators. He remains a mysterious, aloof character, similar to Don Draper in the television series Mad Men. Second son Joe, on the other hand, is an animal-loving homebody, content to stay close to Denby, their town of 200. Henry, the youngest boy, always has his nose in a book. Lillian, Rosanna’s favourite, elopes with one of her drugstore customers and moves to suburban Washington, D.C.

If the three girls are less individuated than the boys, this represents a deliberate comment on the few options available to women in the mid-nineteenth century. Rosanna is the one character rather left behind in history’s march; hers is the saddest case of an unfulfilled life: ‘There were so many things Rosanna could have been besides a farm wife, she thought. … But she knew this was her life.’ Walter, meanwhile, gets stuck in a rut of habit and tradition, such that he is unable to even imagine a life beyond farming.

With its three-decade scope, Some Luck provides a panorama of American history. Droughts, the Great Depression, the Second World War, and McCarthyism all feature, while the start of the Cold War – including paranoia over the Russians getting the bomb – sets up the second volume. It sometimes feels Smiley is too consciously inserting elements to tick all the historical boxes. This means the plot can seem (like history) like one damn thing after another. The historical material does not flow quite as naturally as in, say, The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver.

However, Smiley avoids a gimmicky One Day effect by varying the time of year so most chapters highlight different events, birthdays or holidays: the 1934 State Fair; the 1936 blizzards, when Frank is on a train to Chicago and almost gets stuck; and Thanksgiving 1948. All the same, it is often the quieter incidents that stick in the memory over the years, such as Rosanna giving birth to Henry at home, Frank’s lust for his best friend’s girl, Joe’s sadness over a litter of drowned puppies, or Walter’s fear of death after nearly falling down a well.

The simple joys and tragedies of an average family give Some Luck the subtle resonance of recently rediscovered American classics like John Williams’s Stoner (Waterstones Book of the Year in 2013) and Joan Chase’s During the Reign of the Queen of Persia (reprinted by NYRB Classics in 2014). The theme of agricultural struggle also brings to mind two favourites, Pearl Buck’s The Good Earth and John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath.

Farming, unpredictable and frequently heartbreaking, is an appropriate framework for an all-American story. Especially after a suicide in the family, Rosanna insists that ‘any life is better than farming.’ Lessons on corn varieties and crop rotation are slightly tedious, but they contribute to the symbolism of American Heartland identity in the same way that the game of baseball does in Chad Harbach’s The Art of Fielding. In fact, the term ‘Great American Novel’ has been bandied about in relation to Some Luck, including by novelist Charlotte Mendelson, who calls it ‘a rural tragedy, a domestic epic and an unassuming masterpiece.’

Aspects of the Great American Novel are certainly on display: immigrant roots, coming-of-age trajectories for individuals and the nation, and American dream scenarios of reinvention (notably Frank’s wife, who changes her name to match her new big-city sophistication). Especially with its century-long sweep, Smiley’s trilogy will form a major reflection on the patterns of modern American history. (It will be interesting to see what Smiley posits for the near future, given that the last volume concludes in 2020 – presumably after its composition.)

Conversely, one might argue that Smiley is applying European literary traditions to a quintessentially American story of inheritance and individualism. The Minneapolis Star Tribune calls the trilogy a ‘Balzacian project,’ and Smiley’s debt to Charles Dickens is clear in her large cast and well-defined voices. Her career has also taken inspiration from the Icelandic sagas (e.g. 1988’s The Greenlanders). Yet Thomas Hardy may well be the clearest influence here, with an Iowan farm filling the central role of his Wessex and the ‘luck’ of the title standing in for Fate.

Indeed, several times Smiley’s characters reflect on the unlikely and seemingly random events that have gone into determining this family; ‘what would we do without some luck after all?’ Luckily, eager readers will be able to follow the Langdons’ fortunes through another 67 years of American history.

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An American transplant to England, Rebecca is a full-time freelance writer and editor. She reviews books for a number of print and online publications in the US and UK, including Bookkaholic.

Jane Smiley, Some Luck (Mantle: London, 2014). 978-1447275596, 400 pp., hardback.

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