Paper dolls: Some Luck (review)

Knopf
October 7, 2014

I heard an interview with Jane Smiley the other day on NPR. You can listen to it here (link). I am someone who has loved all things Smiley–Moo, Private Life, Ordinary Love and Good Will (0kay, so how can a writer fail with an incredible title like that last one?!)  Surprisingly, her Pulitzer Prize winner Thousand Acres isn’t one of my favorites. But knowing Smiley has a new novel out is enough to make me curious. Her latest title Some Luck will be part of a trilogy–a vast family epic spanning generations in Iowa and beyond.

The novel’s patriarch’s are Rosanna and Walter Langdon who raise their five children on an oat farm in Iowa. Rosanna is a town girl who is won over by the hard-working Walter, just returned from the first World War. They weather good times and lean together with the help of family and friends. Their firstborn, Frank, is Some Lucksomething of a Golden Boy, and in many ways their life revolves around seeing that Frank fulfills his potential. Second-born Joe lives in the shadow of his brother, not coming into his own until his twenties when he introduces new farming methods and has some success. Lillian is the gorgeous child; Henry the scholar; Claire a daddy’s girl. The novel takes them all through the second World War and into the fifties.

And if you can’t tell by the description of the children, this is a novel that leans heavily on tropes. It’s one thing to turn a classic such as King Lear into a modern cautionary tale–especially if it’s done artfully and without too much of a template. But it’s another to rely on stock characters so closely, that they seem like paper dolls: flat, stiff, and cut out of the same paper stock. (Smiley allows the characters to narrate their story as infants and toddlers which I found alternately clever and irritating.)

Much of Some Luck dragged for me–the plot plodded along as slowly as the thirty-some years the novel covered. It might be that the book will come into its own when read along with its not-yet-released brother and sister. Would I read the next two in the trilogy? Probably so. At least, I’d try.

Because it is Jane Smiley, after all.

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