Early Warning by Jane Smiley

early warningEarly Warning by Jane Smiley

Knopf, April 2015

Disclosure: I received a review copy from the publisher.

Jane Smiley’s Last One Hundred Years Trilogy covers a century in roughly 1300 pages. While I was a fan of the first book, which happened to end in 1953, I have several reservations about Early Warning. I need less panorama and more characters whose actions make some sort of sense.

Early Warning covers the years of 1953 to 1986, and each chapter corresponds to one year. The four of the five Langdon children have moved all over the country while one stayed in Iowa to run the family farm. Both books end with a major character of one generation’s death (book 1 was the patriarch Walt Langdon, book 2 was a member of his child’s generation). Smiley also covers Vietnam, the Peoples Temple, psychotherapy, Reagan, and more. It’s an ambitious project, and at times I felt Smiley was veering into Forrest-Gump territory: because her cast is so big, she could have someone from the extended family touch on these events, and she went for it. Let me explain a little bit more about why the breadth of the novel didn’t sit right with me.

My biggest complaint about Early Warning is that the first half of the book (over 200 pages) barely gets into the wide cast of characters’ inner lives. I was mostly mystified by Frank Langdon, who’s clearly one of Smiley’s favorite characters, as he proceeded to be horrible to lots of people in his family and work life. He’s made millions in whatever industry he enters, including weapons and oil and gas. I had to take it on faith that he was charismatic or appealing to the other characters because we didn’t get into his wife’s head much at all, despite all the focus on her dedication to various psychotherapies in the 1950s and 1960s. It’s asking a lot of a reader to throw 250 pages of plot with lots of character without having a slightly ominiscient narrator or some sort of hints about the characters inner lives to go on. It’s especially glaring because the last half of the book is so thoroughly dedicated to the characters’ regrets, etc. Smiley has great faith that her readers find her characters as fascinating as she does, but I just don’t.

I sound grumpier than I actually was while I read this book: it’s easy to skim less appealing sections to get to the better half of the book or to avoid the parts that feel like places for her to show what research she did. There are several very affecting sections of the book. The wide canvas and large cast of characters without a central through-line  makes me wish for something more. I’d even be happy if she cut out Frank Langdon and his obnoxious twin sons. Focussing on a smaller group of characters would have improved the story for me as we march through such a long period of time, or in the alternative, she could have written an even longer series of books so no character and no period of time gets too little attention.



10 thoughts on “Early Warning by Jane Smiley

  1. I think that’s always a risk, Rebecca, when you’re trying to tell a wide-scope story like this. It’s hard to balance breadth and depth. Still, it sounds as though there are some things to like about this one, and that’s great. I have to admit I do like historical novels…

    • I like them too, and I thought the balance between big and small worked in the first book. I hope I like the conclusion– I need to know what happens to everyone 🙂

  2. That’s why I struggle with family sagas: I fear getting lost, looking only at externals. I’d rather examine in detail a few characters and a small scene, there’s something to be said for Jane Austen’s ‘little bit of ivory’.

    • Definitely! Or you could write a six or eight book series a la Trollope, which may have served her better because the saga covers so many years. I tend to feel ambivalent about sagas, as in I preferred the Peace to the War in Tolstoy. I keep searching for a good one.

  3. I just had this problem with Eleanor Henderson’s Ten Thousand Saints which was just too jam packed with characters and themes to work for me. I do like Smiley’s writing though…

    • Interesting: I don’t know much about the Henderson novel. I like Smiley’s writing too, but I know what you mean about too many themes.

  4. I just recently abandoned the first one – I couldn’t bear that all the early chapters were kinda from the baby’s perspective. I know why she did it, but that’s why I feel writers should avoid blocking themselves into some kind of regimented structure, like a year per chapter. Still, glad you enjoyed it enough to want to persevere with the third book.

  5. That was a really helpful review Rebecca – I enjoyed the first one, with some reservations, as we discussed recently, and I can see there are some of the same problems with the next one. But I probably will go ahead with it….(when I have time).

    • I’m eager to see how she wraps up the trilogy, but I much preferred the older generation to the middle one in this book. It’s a matter of taste, I think. I hope you enjoy it when you get to it!

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