The hallmark of Jane Smiley’s work is variety: Among her novels are a mystery (Duplicate Keys), an epic (The Greenlanders), a tragedy (A Thousand Acres), a comedy (Moo), and a romance (The All-True Travels and Adventures of Lidie Newton). All her works, with the exception of a few short stories, are consistent in craftsmanship, meticulous attention to detail, and evidence of careful, scholarly research. Certain themes recur in her fiction, such as the relationship between power and love, the ecological consequences of farming with chemicals, the successes and failures of capitalism, and simple human fallibility. Smiley consistently refuses to offer tidy solutions to complex human conflicts; her characters move gradually toward the light but receive no moments of blinding epiphany. Her vision can best be described as tragicomic: Her most tragic tales have moments of biting humor, and her most comic tales contain a melancholic strain.
Some of Jane Smiley’s finest work can be found in her three novellas The Age of Grief, Ordinary Love, and Good Will. All these works are finely crafted stories of family life and marriage. The novella, with its compactness and intensity, seems to be the ideal form for Smiley’s rich talent for examining the psychological subtleties of ordinary human life. Without the encumbrances of subplots and multiple characters, Smiley is able to do what she does best: examine one theme deeply and meditatively.
A theme shared by these three novellas is that human fallibility prevents people from achieving their visions of marital and family bliss. Dave and Dana, the couple at the center of The Age of Grief, seem to have everything that should make a marriage happy—love (at least at the beginning of their marriage), a successful joint dental practice, an equitable arrangement for child care, and even good looks. Their marriage survives an extramarital affair, which neither of the two openly acknowledges or seems to understand. Dave, the narrator, is left with little more knowledge of his marriage than he had before; he is even perplexed about exactly what marriage is, other than something too small to contain the complexities of two individuals.
Ordinary Love and Good Will, which were published together, are intended to be paired works, one from the point of view of a mother and one from the point of view of a father. Smiley sees one of these narratives as essentially masculine, with its linear plot, and one as essentially feminine, with a plot that relies on revealing what is hidden. Ordinary Love is the story of a woman who helped create and then destroy a perfect family. The protagonist, a middle-aged woman, reveals an extramarital affair that destroyed her marriage to her children’s father, only to have her children, now adults, almost vengefully reveal tales of physical abuse, abandonment, and sexually inappropriate behavior suffered in the presence of their father.
Good Will is the story of a man who created his own Eden on a Pennsylvania farm. His family also seems perfect in this idyllic setting, where he and his wife grow their own food, make their own clothes, and rely on bartering their trades and services rather than earning money to accumulate worldly goods. However, Bob Miller, theprotagonist, is intent on creating his world, including his wife and son, in his own image, a vision that—as history has shown—must fail. This novella and Ordinary Love are both rooted in the theme that fulfillment of desire does not necessarily bring human happiness.
A Thousand Acres
Of all Smiley’s novels, A Thousand Acres has enjoyed the greatest literary and popular acclaim, not only receiving a Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award but also remaining on The New York Times paperback best-seller list for twenty-nine weeks. The literary appeal of this novel is due in part to its plot, a feminist revision of William Shakespeare’s drama King Lear (pr. c. 1605-1606). Its popular appeal may be attributed to growing awareness of issues of child sexual abuse in the United States. Motivated by the question of what could have caused King Lear’s daughters to feel such anger, Smiley chooses to retell this classical tragedy through the eyes of one of his daughters.
A Thousand Acres is set on a farm in Zebulon County, Iowa, and centers on Lawrence Cook and his three daughters, Ginny, Rose, and Caroline. Ginny and Rose correspond to the characters of Lear’s “evil” older daughters, Goneril and Regan, whereas Caroline plays the part of Lear’s “good” youngest daughter, Cordelia. True to the King Lear plot, Lawrence Cook proposes to divide his kingdom, a one-thousand-acre farm, among his three daughters. The two older daughters, farm wives themselves, accept, while the youngest daughter, a lawyer living in Des Moines, refuses. A nearby farmer, Harold Clark, takes the part of the earl of Gloucester, with his two rivalrous sons, Loren and Jess. After the land transaction takes place, Lawrence Cook apparently goes mad (although he could be faking insanity to get his land back); Harold Clark loses his eyesight in a farm chemical accident; Ginny and Rose commit adultery with the same man, Jess Clark; and Ginny tries unsuccessfully to poison Rose. Although Smiley’s retelling of Shakespeare’s tragedy may rob King Lear of his majesty, as Christopher Lehmann-Haupt has complained, the novel more than adequately restores the dignity of women silenced by incest and patriarchal suppression.
The story is narrated from the point of view of Ginny Cook Smith, a woman who, in the beginning, caters to her father’s every whim without ever offering her own opinion. Rose is no less servile than Ginny, but she is more visibly angry. Smiley allows the subplot of this King Lear story to unfold gradually, not revealing the issue of incest until at least halfway through the novel. Suddenly Ginny’s self-conscious physical awkwardness and Rose’s vitriolic anger begin to make sense when Rose reveals her memory of their father having sex with both of them. Ginny at first denies Rose’s revelation, having completely repressed this horrific childhood memory. Ironically, as Ginny makes the bed that her lover, Jess, will sleep in—her own childhood bed—she begins to recalls bits and pieces of this incestuous relationship, such as the balding spot on her father’s head and the way his knees forced hers apart. Ginny, knowing that she cannot bear to recall this memory in full, consciously chooses not to, but Rose dwells on the memory, determined until her dying day not to forgive the unforgivable.
A second theme in the novel, that of poisoning, is closely allied with the theme of incest. The women of Zebulon County have been poisoned by agricultural chemicals used as either pesticides or fertilizers. Three women—Ginny and Rose’s mother, Jess Clark’s...
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