Jane Smiley took the 1992 Pulitzer for this novel, and, as part of my ongoing mission to read all of the Pulitzer winners in the fiction category, I finally went after this one after finding a nice used copy at Pegasus Books in Oakland. Per the back of the novel prior to my reading it, I was in for a kind of King Lear re-boot set in a small Iowa farming community. Having now finished it, I’ll acknowledge that this was accurate, but I have to say that it was far overstated.
In its structure, it certainly seems to be based on King Lear, insofar as we have a strong paterfamilias reaching up there in years deciding to divide his farm among his three daughters, but beyond that, Smiley made this tale altogether new and brilliant.
It’s so remarkably ethereal and dark and brooding. Our protagonist tells the story in first person. She’s Ginny, the middle daughter of the three. She lives in a house on the farm with her husband Ty. Her sister, Rose, lives in another house on the farm, with her husband, Pete, and her two daughters. In a third house lives their father, who’s a dark, rude, extremely untalkative fellow. Their mother died many years back. The youngest daughter lives in Des Moines, and never took to the farming life.
Their father, perhaps with the goading of his youngest daughter in Des Moines, gets it into his head that he wants to bequeath the farm to his daughters, but this apparent generous move becomes something much, much bigger and darker. It sets into motion a nasty, lovely, disturbing chain of events. I’ll not spoil anything, but I’ll say this: not everyone will make it, and you will be quite disturbed.
Apart from the riveting plot of the thing, though, I want to comment briefly on its atmospheric qualities. Smiley has created here a narrative that, even with all of its awful happenings, made this reader feel some kind of weird, romanticism for the farming life, something I have absolutely no experience of and absolutely no business romanticizing. Yet such is the power of Smiley’s novel. It’s a beautiful tale, and I found myself missing life on the farm after I finished reading it.