Book Review: Early Warning, by Jane Smiley

Available in bookstores nationwide.
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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

Book Review: Some Luck, by Jane Smiley

Available in bookstores nationwide.

Some Luck is a vast novel, rivalling the imaginative scale of Game of Thrones, but rather cv_some_luckthan occupying a fictional realm, Smiley sets her story over 33 significant years in the history of the USA.

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

Some Luck
by Jane Smiley
Published by Mantle
ISBN 9781447275619