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I was fascinated by the premise of the book – to show how the USA was formed over a century, based on the fate of one family. Smiley has planned three volumes; Some Luck is the first in the series. The novel opens in rural Iowa; a newlywed couple are just beginning their family, and the book starts with the voice of the patriarch, Walter. It is 1920, Walter is 25, and has recently purchased his own land; he is proud of his purchase, but uncertain of how wise land ownership will turn out to be.
The story that follows takes the reader through the modernisation of farming in Iowa so specifically and with such attention to detail that I found myself wishing the book was set in New Zealand so I had closer connections with the setting. As Walter’s children grow up and move across the States, and the world during wartime, we get to know the political history, and experience the evolving fashions, city life, and the growth of suburbia in America. Each chapter spans one year.
Some Luck is told from multiple character viewpoints, including those of babies, toddlers and pre-schoolers, which are often very accurate. One line in particular stuck with me, ‘It was beyond Frank to understand why he sometimes did the very thing he was told not to do. It seemed like once they told him not to do it – once they said it and put it in his mind – then what else was there to do?’ I recognise that entirely from my own children’s behaviour.
Each of Walter and wife Rosanna’s children have their own strong and distinct personalities, covering all points on the spectrum. Across the timeline of the novel their children become adults, marry and have children of their own.
The positive effect of the constantly shifting point of view is that we got to know more than just one story – by the end of the book, there are nine narrators. I found it easy to keep the characters separate as their personalities were distinct, but sometimes it was hard to care for each of them equally. Smiley follows the most fascinating character through each chapter she writes; in the case of war-time, this was of course the character who went to war; in the case of the cold war, likewise the spies and later the commies got a period of narration. The one character I finished the novel without feeling I knew was Rosanna, Walter’s Wife, the matriarch of the family. I found out more about Rosanna from her daughters’ observations of her rather than from her own narrative voice, and the only time I felt like I was really there with her was at the end of the book.
Some Luck is certain to be admired by a broad and diverse audience, and I look forward to the second in the series.
Reviewed by Sarah Forster
by Jane Smiley
Published by Mantle