By Jane Smiley. Knopf, 416 pp, hardcover
“All happy families are alike” runs the Tolstoyan wisdom, but then Count Tolstoy never met the Langdons, the farming family at the heart of Jane Smiley’s beguiling new novel, Some Luck. Terrible things happen to the Langdons as they struggle to wring a living from the stingy Iowa cornfields through depression and war in the first half of the 20th century, but through it all they remain a happy, functional family.
Smiley’s choice to steer clear of the family dysfunction that propelled the plot of her best-known book, the Pulitzer Prize–winning A Thousand Acres, takes some time to pay off in Some Luck, the first in a trilogy following the Langdon family from 1920 to 2020. Smiley, who spent two decades as a student and professor at Iowa’s state universities, nails the drudgery of life on a small farm without electric lights or tractors—nails it so well, in fact, that some readers may find themselves looking for a route back to city living.
But just when Some Luck seems suffocated by its bleak setting and slow-boil narrative, the book opens up, flowerlike, as the family members grow and begin leading separate lives. Frank, the Langdons’ eldest son, leaves for college and then the army; his sister, Lillian, marries a mysterious charmer who chases spies in Washington, D.C. Frank’s years as a sniper in North Africa and Italy during World War II provide some of the most vivid, and unsentimentalized, war writing in recent American fiction, and his clandestine dealings with Lillian’s husband give the reader ample reason to anticipate Smiley’s next installment, which will carry the family through the Cold War.
In Some Luck, one has the sense of being in the presence of a master storyteller who has chosen to put her characters in a familiar setting and simply let them live while she takes notes. In its slower moments, the result can feel like serial Christmas letters from a particularly nosy maiden aunt, but for most of this wise and powerful novel, it feels like reading a history of the American Century from inside the minds of the humble family farmers who set it in motion.
Jane Smiley makes two appearances on Sunday (October 26) at the Vancouver Writers Fest. See the Vancouver Writers Fest website for details.