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A Book Review — Some Luck by Jane Smiley

Indefinitely postponing my New York Times Notable Books of 2014 reading and reviewing challenge doesn’t mean I can’t keep posting book reviews.  Right?

Some Luck by Jane Smiley was a holiday gift from my former boss, who retired at the end of 2014.  Jane Smiley is a local girl, living somewhere in Northern California.  So, I read the book feeling some kind of connection to her.  She has won awards for her writing in the past, including a Pulitzer Prize.  So, she’s no small fry in the world of writing.

Here’s the Amazon blurb for the book:

Longlisted for the 2014 National Book Award

From the winner of the Pulitzer Prize: a powerful, engrossing new novel—the life and times of a remarkable family over three transformative decades in America.

On their farm in Denby, Iowa, Rosanna and Walter Langdon abide by time-honored values that they pass on to their five wildly different children: from Frank, the handsome, willful first born, and Joe, whose love of animals and the land sustains him, to Claire, who earns a special place in her father’s heart.

Each chapter in Some Luck covers a single year, beginning in 1920, as American soldiers like Walter return home from World War I, and going up through the early 1950s, with the country on the cusp of enormous social and economic change. As the Langdons branch out from Iowa to both coasts of America, the personal and the historical merge seamlessly: one moment electricity is just beginning to power the farm, and the next a son is volunteering to fight the Nazis; later still, a girl you’d seen growing up now has a little girl of her own, and you discover that your laughter and your admiration for all these lives are mixing with tears.

Some Luck delivers on everything we look for in a work of fiction. Taking us through cycles of births and deaths, passions and betrayals, among characters we come to know inside and out, it is a tour de force that stands wholly on its own. But it is also the first part of a dazzling epic trilogy—a literary adventure that will span a century in America: an astonishing feat of storytelling by a beloved writer at the height of her powers.

This is a book with a lot of positive reviews from critics.  Here’s what The New Yorker has to say about Some Luck:

“This sweeping, carefully plotted novel traces the history, from 1920 to the Cold War era, of a single Iowa farming family. Each chapter focuses on one year, setting the minor catastrophes and victories of the family’s life against a backdrop of historical change, particularly the Great Depression. As the children branch out from their tiny town, so, too, does the story, eventually encompassing several generations, cities, and cultural movements. Smiley, like one of her characters contemplating the guests at the Thanksgiving table, begins with an empty house and fills it ‘with twenty-three different worlds, each one of them rich and mysterious.’” —The New Yorker

And here are a few of the one star reviews on Amazon:

I feel like I was snookered into buying this … by all the four-star Amazon reviews. In truth, it’s just plain boring. I kept plodding along on my kindle app, watching the page count, and thinking that surely something will happen that will cause me to start caring about these characters. It never did.

I had a really hard time getting through this book and even at the end, I couldn’t believe that was all there was. There was no plot, no climax, no point. Sorry I wasted my time on this book.

This was my first Jane Smiley novel and will probably be my last. The characters were interesting, but the long, tedious trivial details in between any action in the plot were torture. Doesn’t Ms. Smiley use an editor? There is so much that could be eliminated from this book to make it readable. The endless farm narratives were way too much information for any reader, and I imagine would even bore a farmer. Sometimes authors need to know that less is more and not everyone is enthralled by every thought that enters her head. Memo to Ms. Smiley: a longer novel does not always make a better one!

Here’s the interesting thing about the book and its reviews.  I probably agree with just about every one star review on Amazon that I read.  There are twenty of them.  The book has an average rating on Amazon of 3.9.  So, even with those twenty lousy ratings, it still rates pretty well overall.  But even though I agree with all of those comments, I still thought the book was worthy of more than one star.

The book tells the story of the Langdon family, with each chapter being one year in their lives.  Truth is that each chapter isn’t necessarily one year and the entire story of their lives in that year isn’t told.  Instead, each chapter includes snapshots told in 3rd person from the perspective of different members of the family.  Each snapshot revolves around some event or experience each of those characters has during the year.  Through this storytelling technique, each character progresses through the 30+ years the story spans.  Children are born, some people die, others move away, the depression strikes, war intervenes, the cold war and the A-Bomb come along to threaten everybody’s survival.

It’s a really interesting way to tell a story and it had me intrigued.  But, yeah, there were times when the detail was tedious and went so far beyond what was needed to tell the story.  There were many times when I found myself wanting to skip paragraphs and entire pages because of that detail.  There was also something that just seemed so flat about the characters.  Far too many of them just seemed to be so unemotional and unengaged in the events that surrounded them.  When the story got to its conclusion and the climactic event happened, it was hardly surprising and produced absolutely no emotional reaction in me.  Normally, with an epic, family-centered, relationship type of story like this, I would have been very involved in the ending.  Not with this one.  It was just kind of “huh, well I kind of saw that coming and it all makes sense and …. well, ok, what am I going to read next.”

So, there’s all of that.  It was tedious and flat, but there was still something about it that I liked.  Maybe it’s just because of the type of story it is.  An epic tale of family, spanning thirty years of a fascinating time in our country’s past.  So, it’s not a one-star story.  It’s not a five-story story.  It’s somewhere in between.  Just not sure where.

And, just so you know, something in this review compels you to try the book … it’s the first in a planned trilogy about the Langdon family.



2 responses to “A Book Review — Some Luck by Jane Smiley

  1. Amy Reese January 23, 2015 at 10:19 pm

    Thanks for the review, Mark. I didn’t know she lived in Northern California. For some reason, I thought she lived in the mid-west. It sounds like she had an interesting structure. Even if I don’t fully enjoy a book, I always get something out of it.

    • kingmidget January 24, 2015 at 8:24 am

      I think this book qualifies as exactly that. Hard to say I liked it. Hard to say I didn’t like it. But I did get something out of it and I will likely strongly consider reading the next two books in the trilogy when they come out just to see her epic to its end.

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