Book Review: Early Warning, by Jane Smiley

Available in bookstores nationwide.
Early Warning is the second after Some Luck, in the Last Hundred Years trilogy, and what Smiley has pulled off is no mean feat. The years this novel spans are 1953-1986 – 33 years in the history of the United States that are a path well-trodden by many novelists. Our original couple, Walter and Rosanna’s children have had their own children, and during the course of this novel, many of the grandchildren also grow up to the age where they have children of their own.

This is one of those novels that reels you in, showing you the points of view of 13 members of the ever-expanding Langdon family, showing the lives of most of the family. The five siblings that survived childhood are now all over the US, scattered from the family farm in Iowa where Joe remains, to New York where Frank and Andy live, to Washington DC where Lillian, Arthur and their family live, and further afield at times, as kids went to college, joined peace marches and joined the war in Vietnam.

Each of the characters is so well-formed that I can only imagine Jane Smiley creating each and every one of them from clay, manipulating them as the story demanded. Each character seemingly has their own will given by the writer, moving themselves towards their destinies. It is true that occasionally I could pick a plot twist a mile ahead, by reading into the family tree – but this didn’t detract from the enjoyment of this dense and wonderful story.

Smiley has truly used her depth of writing experience to bring in the full range of possible fates for her characters. There are happy and unhappy marriages, there are warring twin siblings who are forever at odds with one another, a confused teenager who is nearly lost to a cult and of course, cruel ironies in the clash of reality with idealism. We learn about the ups and downs of farming in Iowa and what causes them, we understand our characters before they understand themselves, we see relationships with parents and lovers carelessly destroyed. When a significant event occurs, like the peace march in 1967 in New York, Smiley tells it from multiple perspectives, from different members of the family who don’t quite meet.

This book is for anybody who enjoys family saga and watching people live history. I am looking forward to Golden Age, the book of the most recent 34 years – interestingly enough, if the book is due next year as the publisher says, Smiley will have to invent the future. I can’t wait to see what she thinks we are going to come to.

Reviewed by Sarah Forster

Early Warning
by Jane Smiley
Published by Pan Macmillan. Mantle imprint
ISBN 9781447275633

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