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.

Early Warning by Jane Smiley

This is the second in Jane Smiley’s Last Hundred Years trilogy which follows the lives of one American family across a period of a century. The first book, Some Luck, took us from 1920 to the end of 1952, and this one, Early Warning, covers 1953 to 1986.

It had been almost two years since I read Some Luck, so I was worried that I would struggle to remember who the characters were and how they were related to each other. On beginning Early Warning, then, I was relieved to see that Jane Smiley addresses this problem by beginning the novel with a family gathering – the funeral of Walter Langdon, the man who, with his wife Rosanna, had been at the heart of the previous novel. The funeral is attended by all of his adult children – Frank, Joe, Lillian, Henry and Claire – some of whom are now married and have children of their own. As the family sit around a table reminiscing about the past, this gives the reader a chance to get reacquainted with the characters.

So far so good, but once the different branches of the family depart and go back to their own homes, things quickly become much more confusing! In the previous book, the action revolved around the Langdon farm in Iowa, but now that the children have grown up, some of them have moved away and there are now Langdons scattered all over America, in different towns and different states. As the years and decades go by, moving from the 1950s to the 60s, 70s and finally the 80s, the grandchildren grow up too and build lives of their own, bringing even more characters into the story. I was constantly referring to the family tree at the beginning of the book and can’t imagine how I would have coped if I’d been reading it as an ebook!

The novel follows the same structure as the first one, with one chapter devoted to each year. As I mentioned in my Some Luck review, this means that, although it keeps the story moving forward, we are also left with some big gaps. When we leave the characters behind at the end of one chapter, we leap straight into the middle of the following year with the next chapter and haven’t ‘seen’ everything that happened in the meantime. It’s an unusual way to structure a novel and while it’s successful in the sense that it makes the trilogy feel different and memorable, it’s too restrictive and I’m glad not all books are written like this!

There is really very little more that I can say about Early Warning. There are some dramas, of course – births, deaths, marriages, divorces, affairs, house moves and changes of career – but there is no real plot, any more than anybody’s life ‘has a plot’. With so many characters, I couldn’t keep track of everything that was happening, but some of the things that stood out for me in this book were the exploration of Frank’s wife Andy’s mental state and the therapy she undergoes, the rivalry between their twin sons, Michael and Richie, and the pressure Lillian’s husband Arthur find himself under as a result of his job with the CIA. I was also particularly intrigued by the introduction of a new character, Charlie, whom we first meet as a small child and who appears to be unconnected to anyone else in the book. Smiley writes very convincingly from a child’s perspective and I really enjoyed reading these sections and guessing how Charlie would eventually fit into the story.

Some of the major events of the period are featured too, including the Vietnam War and the Cold War, and whereas in Some Luck the family on their Iowa farm were largely sheltered from the outside world, this time, because the geographical scale of the story has broadened, there are family members affected in some way by almost all of the world events touched on in the novel.

I have now started the third book, Golden Age, but with yet another generation of characters to get to know, I’m anticipating an even more confusing read than this one!

Some Luck by Jane Smiley

Some Luck This is the first volume of a trilogy following the lives of the Langdon family across a period of a century. Beginning in 1920 and ending in 2020 (although Some Luck only takes us up to 1953), we will get to know several generations of the family over the course of the three novels, watching as the children grow up, get married and have children of their own, sharing their hopes and dreams, and accompanying them through some of the events which shaped the last one hundred years of American history.

At the heart of the story are Walter and Rosanna Langdon, a young married couple who, as the novel opens, are settling into life on the farm they have recently bought in Iowa. Rosanna has just given birth to their first child, Frank, and in the first few chapters, not only do we see things through the eyes of the two adults, but also through the baby’s, to whom everything in the world is new and strange. As the years go by, four more sons and daughters follow: quiet, gentle, animal-loving Joey; the sweet and angelic Lillian; Henry, who loves reading; and Claire, the youngest and her father’s favourite. Frank himself is handsome, clever and adventurous – and the contrast between his personality and Joey’s adds an interesting angle to the dynamics of the Langdon family.

The novel is carefully structured so that each chapter is devoted to one year and this keeps the story moving forward at a steady pace. However, it also gives the book an episodic feel; each time a new chapter begins and we find that we’ve jumped straight into the following year, there’s a sense that there are some gaps in the story and that things may have changed without our knowledge in a way that wouldn’t happen with a more fluent narrative. Also, as is true in all of our lives, some years are more eventful than others, which means that some chapters are more interesting than others.

Really, though, this is not a book you would choose to pick up if you were looking for a thrilling, action-packed read. Some Luck is a quiet, low-key story about ordinary people leading ordinary lives. Much of the novel is concerned with farming and all it involves: planting and harvesting crops, shearing sheep, trying to cope with summer droughts and winter snowdrifts. It reminded me in this respect of other farm-based novels I’ve read – Willa Cather’s My Antonia and, of course, Little House on the Prairie.

There are some dramas in the lives of the Langdons, but they are relatively small ones – the sort of things that could happen to any of us. Historical events are experienced mainly as the effects filter through to their remote Iowa farm – advances in farming methods, such as the replacement of horses with tractors, cause a lot of excitement and controversy – but occasionally a family member decides to leave the farm and see more of the world. Frank enlists in the army during the Second World War and is sent to North Africa, Rosanna’s sister Eloise moves to Chicago and marries a communist, and Lillian…well, I won’t say too much about what Lillian does except that it’s the one thing I found hard to believe.

Some Luck is the first book I have read by Jane Smiley. I’m aware that A Thousand Acres was her Pulitzer Prize-winning novel and might have been a better choice for me to start with, but I did still enjoy this one and am planning to continue with the trilogy soon. I have the next two books – Early Warning and Golden Age – ready to read.

My commonplace book: February 2016

commonplace book
Definition:
noun
a notebook in which quotations, poems, remarks, etc, that catch the owner’s attention are entered

Collins English Dictionary

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A summary of this month’s reading, in words and pictures.

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Every sound of the quiet evening came clearly to her ears with an unnatural distinctness; but now each one possessed a different and terrifying meaning. The muffled shouts and laughter of the few remaining bathers from the indoor swimming bath were the cries of fleeing, panic-stricken people. The whisper of the breeze through the pine needles was a frightened man whispering orders in the shadow of fog-shrouded whin bushes. A passing car was the drone of an enemy bomber and the faint lap of water against the sea-green tiles at the far side of the wide pool was the lap of waves against a pebble beach.

Death in Berlin by M. M. Kaye (1955)

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“The promise of the day!” said Visconti, dreamily and sadly. “Hath it never struck thee how that promise never is fulfilled? Day after day, since the world began, something in the mystery of the dawn is promised – something the sunset smiles to see unfulfilled – something men have ever been cheated of – something men will never know – the promise of the dawn!”

The Viper of Milan by Marjorie Bowen (1906)

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Louis X

Uncertain health, a clever but overbearing father whose authority had crushed him, an unfaithful wife who had scoffed at him, an empty treasury, impatient vassals always ready to rebel, a famine in the first winter of his reign, a storm which threatened the life of his second wife – beneath what disastrous conjunction of the planets, which the astrologers had not dared reveal to him, must he have been born, that he should meet with adversity in every decision, every enterprise, and end by being conquered, not even nobly in battle, but by the water and mud in which he had engulfed his army?

The Poisoned Crown by Maurice Druon (1956)

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She looked up as the train passed, and I was almost near enough to catch her eye. She had a round pale face, the usual exhausted face of the slum girl who is twenty-five and looks forty, thanks to miscarriages and drudgery; and it wore, for the second in which I saw it, the most desolate, hopeless expression I have ever-seen. It struck me then that we are mistaken when we say that ‘It isn’t the same for them as it would be for us,’ and that people bred in the slums can imagine nothing but the slums. For what I saw in her face was not the ignorant suffering of an animal. She knew well enough what was happening to her — understood as well as I did how dreadful a destiny it was to be kneeling there in the bitter cold, on the slimy stones of a slum backyard, poking a stick up a foul drain-pipe.”

The Road to Wigan Pier by George Orwell (1937)

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Flag of Iowa

After all no fledgling had it easy, farmer or crow. Hadn’t he known since he was a boy the way the fledglings had to fall out of the nest and walk about, cheeping and crying, until they grew out their feathers and learned to fly on their own? Their helpless parents flew above them, and maybe dropped them a bit of food, but flying or succumbing belonged to them alone.

Some Luck by Jane Smiley (2014) – review to follow

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“I must insist upon it,” she continued, “that you shall take me now as I really am — as your dearest friend, your sister, your mother, if you will. I know what I am. Were my husband not still living it would be the same. I should never under any circumstances marry again. I have passed the period of a woman’s life when as a woman she is loved; but I have not outlived the power of loving.”

Phineas Redux by Anthony Trollope (1873)

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“There is no other way, Robert,” James said quietly, watching the emotions shift across his face. “If Balliol returns you lose everything. At least this way you have a chance to make sure you and your family are protected. Our best hope is that Edward will be able to keep Balliol from the throne. If he succeeds, God willing, you may one day still claim it.”

Renegade by Robyn Young (2012)

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St Patrick

And so it came to be that they carried me away into bondage, slung over the shoulder of the black-beard while the girl walked, roped behind. I cannot tell you of the voyage, nor of the faces of the many who were taken into captivity with us. I can only say that on that day “…the Lord brought over us the wrath of His anger and scattered us among many nations, even unto the utmost part of the earth, where now my littleness is placed among strangers” in the land known as Eire.

The Lion and the Cross by Joan Lesley Hamilton (1979) – review to follow

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Everybody was bowing, sliding on to one knee as Henry came into the chamber, leaning on his staff and smiling…Here comes the King, and with the coming of the King, all life must stop, the very air must thicken as if congealed in awe of this gross man who hobbled painfully on his tall staff, nodding and smiling, blinking every second.

Here Comes the King by Philip Lindsay (1933)

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In a country where so many desire status and wealth, petty annoyances can spark disproportionately violent behaviour. We become frustrated because we feel powerless, invisible, unheard. We crave celebrity, but that’s not easy to come by, so we settle for notoriety. Envy and bitterness drive a new breed of lawbreakers, replacing the old motives of poverty and the need for escape. But how do you solve crimes which no longer have traditional motives?

Ten-Second Staircase by Christopher Fowler (2006) – review to follow

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Favourite books this month: Phineas Redux and The Viper of Milan