Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Some Luck, Jane Smiley

Some Luck: A Novel

Jane Smiley

Category: Fiction

Synopsis: The first novel in a trilogy in which each chapter represents a year in the life of an Iowa farm family.

Date finished: 4 November 2014

Rating: ****

I love books about farms, farming, farm families, cattle, corn, chores, every bit of it. While farming is much more fun to look back on than to live, I’ll always be a farm girl at heart. So a whole book about a farm from the 1920s to the early 1950s? Amen, brother!

I’ve read a fair amount of criticism about this book being boring or “about nothing.” Welcome to farming! The thing about farms is, they look pretty much the same no matter if it’s 1920, 1950, or 2010. The machinery changes, the farmer and his wife age, but the cows, the corn, the work boots, the hard times, that all remains the same. This book captured that truism impeccably well.

Another thing Smiley does a superb job with is getting into the minds of her characters, especially the minds of small children. The observations and deductions of children are so real, so wise, they make you laugh. The book uses alternating points of view and narrations, and that lends to its authenticity.

My only gripe is that the charm of the book’s earlier chapters is kind of lost as the children grow older, and the situations become much more freewheeling. One reason I don’t read a lot of fiction is that coming-of-age stories (most novels, really) always seem to involve some moral lapse. Now granted, lots of kids have moral lapses when they reach the age of reason, but it’s so laughably textbook. You can set your watch by it. When oldest son, Frankie, goes off to college, for example, he discovers prostitutes. In Iowa City. Now, sure, there might very well have been prostitutes in Iowa City in the 1940s, and a number of Iowa farm boys may very well have availed themselves of their services. But still, you know? It felt cheap for this phenomenal book to hoe that row.

And all the communists. And eloping after a few days. And the oldest son being shipped off the war. Sure, all of these things existed, but to bring them all to one family doesn’t seem realistic. That’s my grievance with fiction, and I was sort of sad that this great book went that way too. I guess Smiley was going for a times-they-are-a-changin’ vibe, but I mourned for the part of the book when everyone was struggling through the Great Depression on the farm. (And that tells you more about me than about Smiley, I suppose.)

I really did enjoy the book overall, and I found the writing just wonderful. I enjoyed the characters and felt that I really knew them when the book ended. So I’ll suffer the dollop of unrealistic plot points and remind myself that most books aren’t as realistic as this. To each her own.

Would you recommend this to a friend?

You might also enjoy:
Breaking Clean
Burnt Toast Makes You Sing Good


  1. I've read only one book of hers - A Thousand Acres and though it was related to farming (which is not my favorite topic), I liked it a lot anyway. I should pick up more books by her.

    Great review, I particularly liked that point you made where every cliched experience happens to that family. It's so unrealistic and annoys me too.

    1. Glad I'm not alone!

      A Thousand Acres is on my TBR now, too (though I kind of hated the movie). And the second book in this series comes out this spring. After that, I might be Smiley'd out for awhile.