Golden Age by Jane Smiley

This is the final book in Jane Smiley’s Last Hundred Years trilogy which follows the lives of one American family, the Langdons, throughout the twentieth century and beyond. Although I did enjoy the trilogy as a whole, I’m also very pleased to have reached the end of it – the three books are so long there were times when I felt I’d been reading them for a hundred years!

Golden Age is written in the same format as the first two volumes, with one chapter devoted to each year. Beginning in 1987 this time, we are taken right through to 2019. As the book was published in 2015, this means that the final few chapters are set in Jane Smiley’s future – not far enough into the future to feel like science fiction, but things definitely become slightly dystopian as the rate of climate change rapidly increases to an alarming level, creating dry, dusty landscapes and water shortages. She doesn’t correctly predict Donald Trump’s presidency, but then, I don’t think there are many people who would have seen that coming.

I started reading Golden Age shortly after finishing the previous novel, Early Warning, which was a good idea as the Langdon family tree is now enormous with four or five generations all living at the same time. Some of the characters have been with us from the beginning – Henry, Claire and Andy are still around and I enjoyed catching up with them again – but I found it difficult to keep track of the younger characters (even with the family tree to refer to) and even more difficult to form any kind of connection with them. There were just too many new people to get to know and not enough time devoted to any of them.

For the same reason, it would be impossible for me to mention everything that happens in the book here, but a few storylines that stood out were: the continuing rivalry between twins Richie and Michael as one becomes a politician and the other begins to speculate on Wall Street; Joe’s son, Guthrie, leaving the Langdon farm in Iowa to go and fight in Iraq; Andy’s amazing strength in the face of betrayal and her willingness to embrace new technology in her old age; and Henry, who thought he was destined to grow old alone, finding late in life that he is wanted and needed after all.

I don’t regret reading the whole of this trilogy as I did enjoy getting to know at least some of the family members and learning some American history along the way (even if a lot of the politics in this one did go over my head), but I also thought the three books became progressively less engaging and less enjoyable as the geographical scope grew wider and the distance between reader and characters increased. If you think you might be interested, I would strongly recommend starting at the beginning with Some Luck and deciding whether you like it enough to want to continue.

10 thoughts on “Golden Age by Jane Smiley

  1. Sandra says:

    I am very tempted to tackle this; the trilogy has been on my radar for a while. I wonder what the British equivalent would be – now that I would love to read!

    • Helen says:

      I think it would be worth trying the first book to see if you like it. As the whole trilogy is written in that same one year per chapter format, you should be able to decide very quickly whether you want to continue or not. I would love to read a British equivalent too!

    • Helen says:

      It is a big commitment! I loved the first book, but there were times while I was reading the second and third when I thought I would never reach the end. I did enjoy the whole trilogy overall, though, despite losing track now and then!

  2. Judy Krueger says:

    It was quite a project Jane Smiley took on with this one. At least she completed it which is more than I can say at this point for my writing project. I am glad you persisted and learned some things about our politics and family life here in America. Do you know of any similar group of books about Great Britain in the 20th century?

    • Helen says:

      It was a very ambitious project and I don’t think it was entirely successful, but definitely a fascinating – and, for me, educational – read. I haven’t come across any British books written in a similar format, but I’m sure they would be interesting too.

  3. Carmen says:

    I don’t think I would like this trilogy; its length for one would be off putting, but also you point out that it becomes less engaging as the trilogy progresses. That’s not good at all. I’m glad that you stuck with it, though, and that you enjoyed it overall. 😉

    • Helen says:

      I really enjoyed the first book, but there were just too many characters and storylines to keep track of in the second and third books. Once I’d got that far, though, I had to keep going to find out how everyone’s story would end!

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