Sunday, January 11, 2015

Some Luck, by Jane Smiley

Jane Smiley is an author whose work I have loved (Private Life), hated (Ten Days in the Hills), and found myself utterly indifferent to (Good Faith). I had high hopes for Some Luck, the first book in a planned trilogy about an Iowa family, the Langdons.

Some Luck covers the span of Walter and Rosanna's marriage, from 1920 to 1953. Most of the book revolves around the couple and their children--Frank, a brilliant, handsome boy with trouble connecting to people; Joey, less brilliant and less handsome but drawn to the farm; Mary Elizabeth, who dies in an incident involving a lightning strike; Lillian, Rosanna's perfect girl; Henry, quirky and intellectual; and Claire, a seemingly average child who is Walter's favorite. The story is told from all of these characters' perspectives (the passages narrated by baby Frank are some of my favorites)--and more, including most notably Rosanna's sister Eloise who goes off to Chicago and marries a man who is both Jewish and a Communist (not your typical Iowa boy).

A lot happens to the family, often in events that seem to be paired: the family goes through the Depression, Rosanna experiences postpartum depression following Henry's birth; a relative commits suicide and Walter considers the same drastic action when things are worst on the farm; Frank goes off to college and becomes friends with a charismatic young man and Lillian runs away from the farm with a charismatic young man. As family history develops through marriages and births, the history of the heartland unfolds in the larger context of American history, from the Depression to World War II to the Red Scare of the 50s--and the family is part of it all.

Although a lot happens, the story feels very flat because the Langdons must be among the least reflective families in literature. I grew up on a farm in the Heartland and recognize that these folks--my parents' and grandparents' generations--were not big navel-gazers. But the result in Some Luck is a distancing from the characters and their journeys.  I found myself wanting more from Some Luck, more reaction, more thinking, more of the characters' interior lives. But I still have some hope for the remaining titles in the trilogy, as Smiley moves generations more prone to reflection.

Favorite passages:
. . . something had created itself from nothing--a dumpy old house had been filled, if only for this moment, with twenty-three different worlds, each one of them rich and mysterious.

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