Well, I finished this trilogy and this was a better book than the second one. I think because Smiley starts killing people off in this one, the cast feels less unwieldy and more focused. This book is more of a victory lap in terms of drawing everyone’s narratives to a close. I again had the issue that such dramatic things happen to these people that it feels unrealistic and kept taking me out of the narrative. Any time I spend most of the book thinking about the author’s writing process and why she made narrative choices, it is not a good sign for the immersion and realism of the book. I’m not saying I need everything to be realistic — see how much SF/F and fantasy I read — but when a book is purporting to be straight forward literary fiction, having the author make her favorite character be struck by lightning was just so ridiculous that I couldn’t take it seriously. Frank is so obviously Smiley’s favorite that she couldn’t have him die in bed, he has to be struck by lightning in a freak accident. And then two young characters who she spent all this time making me like are killed, which just seemed to be done to exploit my feelings or make some point about violence in America.
The book suffers again here from Smiley’s insistence on having her characters be involved in major historical events. I found the death of one character in 9/11 to be just as distasteful as the inclusion of the People’s Temple in the last book. Real people died in the Pentagon attack, and it just felt weird to me to kill off a fictional character in the same plane crash real people died in, whose families are still mourning them. I think she is more successful when she has her characters participate in wars, or even when one of them is a Congressman, or when they lose money in financial crashes. I guess personally I just have major qualms about involving fictional characters in real life tragedies, especially when it seems blatantly obvious you’re only doing it to include them in a historical event or to manipulate the reader’s feelings.
Despite all this, this is still an interesting read and I don’t regret reading the whole trilogy. Smiley’s lyrical writing again has moments of great beauty here. Seeing the American century of through the perspective of one family is a fun concept and I wish chapter-a-year books were their own subgenre. I just don’t know if I would recommend this due to my issues with the characterization and her insistence on having her characters be involved in historical mass murders.