A Thousand Acres
by Jane Smiley
Category: Fiction / General
371 pages; ISBN: 0006544827
Rating: 7/10 (Ratings explained)
Jane Smiley writes about family life in the agricultural Midwest and this rather bleak tale of a farming family's disintegration won her the Pulitzer Prize in 1992.
It is loosely based on King Lear. Larry Cook the proud obsessive owner of the biggest farm in the county makes a sudden decision to make it over to his three daughters, Rose, Ginny and Caroline, Things immediately go sour when the latter expresses misgivings about the bequest but this is only the beginning of their troubles as the family is destroyed by jealousy, greed, incest, adultery, murder plots, cancer and insanity.
Smiley's great skill is her control of the narrative, consistently reining it back from lurid melodrama.This is achieved primarily by the setting; her intimate knowledge of farming methods makes episodes like the blinding of Harold (the Gloucester figure) from a pesticide accident entirely convincing.
Nor does Smiley allow herself to become too constricted by the Lear theme. As Ginny is the narrator she is necessarily a more sympathetic character than Goneril despite her infidelity to her stolid husband and amateurish murder plot against Rose.On the other hand Caroline is a despicable character who takes her father's part through jealousy of her sisters' success rather than from filial loyalty. There are other influences too. Harold's public criticism of the sisters at a Church festival has more in common with a similar denunciation scene in E M Forster's "The Longest Journey" than anything in Shakespeare.
"A Thousand Acres" is not quite a classic.One does look in vain for a trace of humour to sugar the pill.Some of the male characters such as Harold's younger son Loren are not developed enough.Some readers may also find that the frequent detailed descriptions of agricultural activity get a little wearing.
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