Some Luck by Jane Smiley
Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf
Publication Date: October 7, 2014
Length: 416 pages
Source: Library copy
The Story: Some Luck, the new novel from Jane Smiley, is the first of a planned trilogy called “The Last Hundred Years” about the Langdon family. The five children of Walter and Rosanna Langdon, each very different from one another, grow up on an isolated farm in Denby, Iowa in the 1920s and ‘30s. Their childhoods are spent leading the same kind of rural life that their parents and grandparents did, bound by time-honored agricultural rhythms. The country is on the brink of sweeping social and economic change, however, and the Langdon children will find themselves spreading out from the Midwestern heartland, experiencing things that their parents could never have imagined.
By the end of the book, in 1952, some of the Langdons have found themselves in Washington DC, New York City, and San Francisco, while some remain in Iowa. Their experiences have been as enormously diverse as their personalities. Three of the Langdon children have married and now have children of their own. With the Langdons, Smiley provides an intimate, and often poignant, portrait of an ordinary American family through the decades.
My Thoughts: I’ve read quite a number of Jane Smiley’s novels, most of them back in the 1990s (strange that the 1990s seems so long ago now!). I’ve always appreciated Smiley as a natural storyteller, and for the fluid nature of her prose. A good Smiley novel--like A Thousand Acres, my favorite of her books--immerses you completely in the lives of her characters, and you don’t want to leave that world when the novel ends. But the last Smiley novel I read was disappointing for me (Ten Days in the Hills). When I heard that Smiley had written a new novel, a multi-generational story about an Iowa farm family, I knew that I wanted to experience it.
And fortunately, Some Luck is a marvelous, engrossing read. I found this story of one family’s life through the years to be unexpectedly riveting, and I wanted to savor every last bit of it.
Smiley doesn’t follow the familiar structure used in many novels, of exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, resolution, etc. Instead, each chapter of Some Luck covers a year in the life of the Langdon family, starting with 1920 and ending in 1952. Every year Smiley gives you a good sense of the rhythms of the Langdons’ lives with a few vignettes about some of the characters. Sometimes a big change happens in a particular year, and sometimes not; small moments sometimes reveal themselves to be significant only with the passage of time. I thought Smiley’s year-by-year structure was a brilliant device to allow readers to fully immerse themselves into the experiences of her characters.
I imagine that some readers will find this structure hard to take, and will wonder, “but where is the PLOT?” Well, to put it simply, the plot is these characters’ lives. As in most real people’s lives, there isn’t one climactic moment that changes everything or a single dramatic resolution. Rather, Smiley seems to say, for the Langdons, as for all of us, there is life, every year—life, with its day-to-day struggles and joys, with its continual cycle of births, passions, and disappointments--until finally, there is death. What greater plot, really, is there?
I would rate Some Luck a 4 out of 5 stars—not a 5, because I do think the start is a little slow. I recommend Some Luck to readers of literary and historical fiction, especially those who like to sink their teeth into a good multi-generational family saga, and I will look forward to the next book in Smiley’s trilogy about the Langdon family.