Thursday, October 30, 2008

Book Review: A Thousand Acres

Title: A Thousand Acres
Author: Jane Smiley
Genre: Literary Fiction
Rating: A

Book Summary (From A successful Iowa farmer decides to divide his farm between his three daughters. When the youngest objects, she is cut out of his will. This sets off a chain of events that brings dark truths to light and explodes long-suppressed emotions. An ambitious reimagining of Shakespeare’s King Lear cast upon a typical American community in the late twentieth century, A Thousand Acres takes on themes of truth, justice, love, and pride, and reveals the beautiful yet treacherous topography of humanity.

Review: This book was truly mesmerizing to me. I can't distinctly put my finger on what make this book entirely un-put-down-able. This story is set on a family farm in Iowa from a period between (circa) 1977 to 1980, a time and place as anachronistic to me as Japan in the 1830's; however, through Smiley's writing style I was there, I could see the beauty of the farms, smell their smells, and feel what it was like to kick dried mud off a tractor tire. Smiley is likely very faithful to farming, she used a lot of references to the art, science, and machinery of farming, but I wouldn't know at all, but I didn't get lost in those details either.

The characters are probably what made this book the most remarkable for me. The two oldest sisters (Ginny and Rose) had a relationship that is seemingly similar to that of me and my sister (without the shared sexual partners thing) with one having a dominant and angry/aggressive demeanor and the other (that would be me) being more likely to avoid confrontation at all costs and behave in a way that she knows will allow her to be accepted by her peers.

However, the characters are where she had her minor set-backs for me as well. 1) The character of Caroline (the youngest sister) was kind of a non-event for me, I never could fully understand where she was coming from, which perhaps you're not supposed to because the protagonist (Ginny) doesn't understand her sister either--a definite possibility in the first-person narration, we're subject to the knowledge and perspective of the narrator; and 2) The character of Ty (Ginny's husband). I absolutely loved Ty, I could see myself (having a personality on the Ginny end of the continuum) being comfortable with Ty, following his lead and trusting him to run the farm successfully. I didn't understand Ginny's restlessness and why she left for St. Paul; I think this was critical, and Smiley wrote it as if Ginny made decisions in regard to her relationship with Ty without ever knowing why she was making the decisions.

The plot of the story was immensely complex, and (based on the advice Smiley gives in her book 13 Ways of Looking at the Novel) I kept thinking to myself, "This climax is coming way too early," because what I thought was the climax was only rising action. Smiley had so much complexity in the interpersonal relationships that unfolded (without becoming confusing or tedious) that you just were completely immersed in the goings-on of this family. I guess I shouldn't have been surprised--she won a Pulitzer prize for this, and you don't get those from writing a human/vampire/werewolf love triangle story, it's got to be unique and teaching and entertaining and novel and wonderful (all of which this book is).

All in all, Smiley has a great lyrical writing style and a complex storyline that is totally worth the 371 pages that you'll read. She got knocked down to an A (rather than A+) because of the minor character flaws I felt.

On a side note, Smiley was living in Iowa at the time that she wrote this, I know (from reading her nonfiction work) that she was later divorced and now lives in San Francisco (remarried, I believe), and I wonder if any of that was going on around the time she was writing this and/or if that had an effect on the shape this story took.


Heather J. said...

(unrelated to this post, sorry!) I'm looking forward to your review of The Sparrow - it definitely is an unusual book. I read/reviewed it and the sequel, Children of God, when I first started my blog. Personally I think it would be a great book club pick, but my girls would stage a coup if I made them read it - they are adamantly against scifi/fanstasy novels.

Heather said...

You can read that review here: The Sparrow Review.

Beth F said...

I read this a long time ago, but I remember having a similar feeling of being totally drawn into the book. The movie version was terrible in comparison with the book.

Heather said...

@Beth, Good to know. I was considering watching the movie, but I'll probably save it now and re-read the book whenever I need another fix.