Some Luck – 3/5 Stars
This novel begins a trilogy of novels that spends 100 years with a single family, starting with a single farm in rural Iowa and branching wildly into various turns in the 20th century. This novel covers the years from 1920 to 1953 and deals with the purchase of the family farm, the marriage of of the young couple and the birth, childhood, education, and starts in the world of their children. In addition, we get the additional side stories of some aunts and uncles.
This opening venture has the issue of teaching the reader what this novel is and how it will function and so by the time it really gets going, it’s almost over. Because I have access to the other volumes and because there’s no wait or distance between me and the rest of the story, it’s not as bad as it could be, but it could be a real issue for some readers. I can imagine reading just this volume and not entirely knowing what to do with the ending except wait. Also, the nature of the novels make them interesting, but because of the constantly pushing forward narrative it can be easy to get lost in the sea of names, minor events, and various other features of the story. And, because there’s always more, it’s not that hard to lose track (and this is especially true in the audiobook) of the thread and then pick up later not really missing a lot. And so it can be an issue at times to stick with it.
Early Warning – 4/5 Stars
As happens with just about any trilogy, once you’re in, you’re in. So this second volume takes what works in the first book and adds and adds to it. There’s an effect here of both reading a family’s story (not really history because you are on page by page exactly where the characters are at any given moment) as they go from generation to the next generation, and alongside this, you’re reading the history of the US through 2020. So of course, I am most interested in the sections of part two and part three where my parents’ lives and my lives are sharing the same history as the characters. That’s the strength of the second section is that I am more on board with the history I am already more familiar with. In addition, it feels like the narrative itself is more interested in this section of time. Perhaps this is because the family tree continues to branch into so many different threads that there’s just more to work with. And something I will talk more about in the third review, while there’s a growing scope in this novel, there’s also greater opportunities for intimacy.
One funny part through all this is that even though this is not particularly presented as a personal history or roman a clef for Jane Smiley, there’s an odd little side character who only lasts for a page or two that clearly based on a youngish Smiley in her grad school days.
Golden Age – 4/5 Stars
This trilogy rounds out to a 4 out of 5 stars and I liked it a lot. Ultimately what this book and set of books challenges you to do is look at a kind of historical fiction, even when it’s not a historical time period. It’s also that kind of book that crops up from time to time of the chronological narrative of multiple generations. So the total effect if allowing the kind of storytelling to wash over you. So long as you keep up with the names and trust in the project, which is to say you will be made aware of the total package and total narrative while not focusing on the individual narratives so much. As a reading experience this can be overwhelming, a little tedious, and strange at times.
Another thing that strange at times is that while those other kinds of novels I think of in terms of being older, this book also dives into some kinds of intimate and personal descriptions of sex using no uncertain terms of what’s happening. So that recasting of older times when narrative tended to bend toward discretion in portrayal, this book dives right in. The effect then is to confront some of the Victorian/Puritan aghastness at sex in older times and reminds you that everybody was always having sex, and the internet didn’t invent porn, kink, and joy.
This last volume pulls this into tighter control since it conforms more to my own expectations of the cultural values that allow for more public sphere discussions of sexuality.