Funny things happen when you read books. You try to read a lengthy, complex book and life decides to distract you. You keep the book away, exasperated, mid-chapter, because it has begun to slow down, and pay attention to other things. Then suddenly you remember the book, it mocks you from the dusty night stand and you reluctantly pick it up. You begin it from where you left off and SMACK! It slaps you in the face. It just happens to pick up the pace from the very page you gave up on!
Jane Smiley’s Pulitzer prize winning novel is an American re-telling of King Lear. The author doesn’t go too far away from the primary plot or characters, except the land to be divvied up between the daughters is a thousand acre farmland in Iowa. The daughters, Ginny (Goneril), Rose (Regan), and Caroline (Cordelia), are fathered by the hard-headed Larry (duh, Lear), who impetuously decides to retire and give up his farm to his daughters and their husbands. When Caroline, the youngest and a lawyer, vocalizes her doubts, Larry’s ego is so hurt that he shuns her and breaks all contact with her, deciding instead to give the land to just Ginny and Rose. The two older daughters are happy with his decision, being farm-wives, and are eager to finally be able to own the land that they have helped Larry work on. Although Ginny, our narrator, tries to be the mediator between Caroline and her father, as well as the general peace-keeper of the family, things go south. When Larry begins to become more and more senile and frustrated at losing his power over his land, he begins to hate his older daughters. As Larry loses his grasp over sanity, Rose talks Ginny into re-discovering certain dirty secrets of their past. Slowly, the family and their unity unravels, leading the narrative towards the tragedy it is bound to be.
While the story is familiar to most of us, Smiley does a brilliant job reinventing the classic as a relatively modern one. The characters are extremely compelling, all painted in various shades of grey. Whereas one might sympathize with King Lear, Smiley’s Larry has little to no redeeming qualities. But the daughters, although they have faults of their own, are human and not unlikable. The detailed descriptions of farming and its various processes were (to me) unnecessary and overwrought. There were times when Smiley got a little too much into the narrator’s head, with unending ruminations, which were difficult to read. (I like my stories dialog-driven.) That being said, Thousand Acres is a book like no other. I love a good tragedy, and this quenched that need. The story is a great reflection of how so many families are broken on the inside and how many of them hide secrets that can tear them apart. It is also a book that exhausts you psychologically, but leaves you feeling accomplished when you smack it shut one last time.