Finishing Up Jane Smiley’s Last Hundred Years Trilogy

golden ageI 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:

  1. Some Luck
  2. Early Warning

I bought my copy of the book.

Some Luck by Jane Smiley

Some LuckSome Luck by Jane Smiley

Knopf, 2014

I borrowed this book from the library.

As the year draws to a close, I wanted to read more American fiction both for the USA Fiction Challenge and just for a break from the Scandinavian stuff I read so much of. I’m very glad I read this book. After a few reservations in the first half of the book, I was very impressed with this book.

This particular book has a broad sweep: every chapter covers a different year in the life of Walter and Rosanna Langdon, farmers in rural Iowa. The nearest village is Denby, population 214. The sweep of the story doesn’t sink in until about halfway through the book as World War II begins: the first half is a story of farm life and their family. (I didn’t think the sections from the perspective of the characters as babies were so successful, and I will admit that the Great Depression chapters were a hard read purely for the subject matter). As time marches on and the children get bigger, their stories take off.

There are a few set pieces in the latter half of the novel that are simply gorgeous as one character or another takes a step back and looks at their lives or the land within their view, and I feel like I’m in the hands of a gorgeous writer at those moment: I can’t include an excerpt because it would give away a bit too much of the plot. As much as I feel some of the characters are unknowable, I’m very much invested in the story and these characters. The mysteriousness arises just because this is a novel with a large cast of characters: Smiley can’t get into everyone’s story in just one volume. Book 2 comes out next year.

I’m reluctant to say more about this book because I don’t want to give away significant plot arcs, but I will say that the story broadens as some of the characters move away from home and the years proceed (the book starts in the 1920’s and ends in 1953).