Jane Smiley's take on William Shakespeare's King Lear is a powerful story of anger, redemption and guilt. Smiley's plot follows Shakespeare's closely: Larry Cook is an Iowa patriarch who decides to divide his farm among his three daughters: Ginny, Rose and Caroline. Problems arise immediately when Caroline, the youngest, voices doubt and is instantly cast out of the family. The remaining two daughters begin to gradually wrestle any control away from their father, who in turns responds to his ever-dwindling authority with hysterical rage. Secrets of the family's past surface, that threaten to disrupt familial ties.
William Shakespeare's King Lear is a flawed character, typical of his tragic figures in that he is an agent in his own demise, yet also a victim of his surroundings and his fate. Smiley's version of Lear, "Larry" is a fire-breathing monstor who doesn't seem to have any redeeming qualities about him. Smiley doesn't try to spend too much time making Larry Cook into a three-dimensional character, because he serves as a plot device to get her literary agenda across, mainly through the trials that befall on Ginny and Rose.
Shakespeare's trio of daughters: Goneril, Regan and Cordelia aren't as fully realized as Smiley's creations -- not surprisingly, given that women characters weren't Shakespeare's strongest point. Ginny and Rose are both as conniving as Goneril and Regan, though Smiley gives them a doozy of a back plot which justifies some of their actions -- and when the reader starts to think that maybe Smiley is using the characters' tragedies as excuses for the women to absolve themselves of guilt, she writes a wonderful and redemptive final act of forgiveness for Ginny, while Rose, through her anger, morphs into another Larry. Smiley isn't as interested in Caroline, either, painting her "good girl" role with such ironic scepticism, that she also appears only to move the story forward and to give Ginny and Rose another common enemy to battle.
Smiley's novel is fraught with a lot of ideas she wants to put across -- mainly the plight of the American woman living in a man's world, be it a farm in Iowa, or a kingdom in England. The point is necessary to address, and most of the time Smiley does an incredible job in showing just how toxic and dangerous mistreating women could be.