Pulitzer Prize-winner Jane Smiley’s latest novel is an unusual book masquerading as something familiar.
“Some Luck,” which was longlisted for this year’s National Book Award, returns to the farm country of northern Iowa, where 1991’s “A Thousand Acres” also takes place. But where “Acres” and its Cook family took narrative cues from the high Shakespearean drama of “King Lear,” this novel has a structure built on something much more everyday: the passage of time.
It opens in 1920, on a farm recently purchased by Walter Langdon. His young wife, Rosanna, is determined “to show her mother and all the others how to be a real farm wife,” and dotes on her new baby, Frank. Each chapter covers another year, and we flit from character to character, moment to moment, until the book closes in 1953.
Meanwhile, more children are born, relatives and neighbors come and go, and the 20th century rolls on around them. Rosanna finds evangelical religion. Headstrong Frank paves his own way off the farm, to high school, college and the Army. Steady Joe sticks nearer to home but develops innovative farming techniques. There’s an elopement, a few untimely deaths and some Cold War intrigue.
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“Some Luck” is the first book in a trilogy, where Smiley plans to follow the Langdons through a full century, to 2020 (Volumes 2 and 3 are slated to come out next year). Thus the ending to book one, while not a classic cliffhanger, feels much more like a pause than a finish.
What’s unusual about this novel is how closely it’s meant to mimic real life, and yet how important Smiley’s gifts as a novelist are to achieving that effect. There isn’t a plot, per se. Or, the plot is one all of us have lived and are living: The kids grow up, go to college, go to war, get married, get jobs, have kids of their own.
“Some Luck” is a slow, leisurely read. The way the story unfolds in vignettes makes it feel not so much like reading a novel as catching up with relatives every couple of months, finding out who’s been up to what and comparing stories. Characters reminisce about scenes from earlier in the book that start to feel like our memories too.
Such a long, loosely connected collection of anecdotes could remain just that. But Smiley’s ability to sketch a scene, to bring to life the quiet incidents as well as the big ones — the moment when something finally makes sense, or a decision is reached, or someone lets slip something they shouldn’t — are what transform the family stories into literature.
What sticks with you isn’t the big, dramatic scenes (there aren’t that many) but everyday images the taste of strawberry ice cream at a Fourth of July picnic or what the underside of his parents’ bed looks like through the eyes of a 3-year-old.
One might question the plausibility of a single, ordinary family ending up involved with so many buzzwords of the mid-20th century: the Communist Party, World War II, the CIA, (potentially) the space race. The concentration of remarkable careers and coincidences may be pushing at the boundaries of realism, but Smiley undoubtedly knows that if we’re going to follow characters through American history, we may as well see some of that history.
“Some Luck” may not be a perfect book — certain characters are just more interesting than others, and some of the adults remain mysterious and distant even while we’re in their point of view — but it succeeds on its own terms and draws the reader in with easy charm.
Some Luck, by Jane Smiley (395 pages; Alfred A. Knopf; $26.95)