I stayed up late this holiday weekend finishing up Golden Age, the last book of Jane Smiley’s Last Hundred Years Trilogy. It’s a sign that I liked the book and that I was involved in the book, but now that I’ve had time to reflect, I feel myself dissatisfied with it. Like I said in my review of the previous book, there were too many characters (sounds like a silly criticism, but I’ll explain more) and the plot felt a little too much like Forrest Gump. It’s hard to suspend my disbelief over three books when this admittedly sprawling family is somehow connected to so many key events/themes (Vietnam, the Middle East, 9/11, the financial crisis, climate change/disruption).
First, it’s been over a year since I read book 2 and it took me quite a bit of time to get family relationships and character names down. Smiley has said that the trilogy is really one big book, and there’s no way to jump into this book without having read the previous ones. Even having read the earlier books, I would have appreciated a color-coded genealogical chart: it would have been clearer than the detailed family tree in the book. Even when I felt more comfortable with my recollection about the characters’ lives in earlier books, the pacing of the story (each chapter covers one year) meant that Smiley had to skip over some characters for years at a time in order to stick to her structure.
Another note on characters: I’m still not enamored of her focus on the antiheroes in the Langdon family, Frank and his son Michael. I have a low tolerance for jerks, even if one of the points of the story was to show the effect of jerks on the people around them. But there were plenty of non-jerky characters, and several of their death-scenes hit me hard
Plot-wise, I was also disappointed because the environmentalist message that’s so explicit at the end of the book after being an undercurrent in the rest of the series just felt odd. Mixing a family saga with muckraking felt discordant here. I would have loved just a straight-up muckraking piece instead. It was a story about generations of Iowa farmers: she could have scrapped lots of other plots for the environmentalist ones!
Anyway, the trilogy is an interesting set of books with some elements that nagged at me.
I reviewed the rest of the trilogy here:
I bought my copy of the book.