Paul Bryant's Reviews > A Thousand Acres

A Thousand Acres by Jane Smiley
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it was ok
bookshelves: novels


It’s kind of slightly fun to see how Jane Smiley gets all the lurid plot of King Lear into her tale of the decline and fall of an Iowa farming family. For instance

Out, vile jelly!
Where is thy lustre now?

the famous scene where the Earl of Gloucester is blinded onstage (ewww, really?) gets transformed into an accident with a farm machine which squirts ammonia into a farmer’s eyes; and a war between the branches of the family becomes a court case. And the reason the father gives the farm to the daughters in the first place is to avoid taxes. That kind of thing. It’s neat. I do like retooled versions of Willie the Shake, and King Lear has popped up as the movies House of Strangers, Broken Lance, Ran, My Kingdom and even allegedly Godfather Part III. Nothing wrong with that. Clueless is Emma and She’s the Man is Twelfth Night. I loves them.

But actually I really hate King Lear itself, so that didn’t help. I mean, all that neck-bulging ranting and raving. It’s like – my ears, my ears. And that’s just the daughters. All that howling on the blasted heath and the Fool and the poor weather. So you know oh he’s given his kingdom away and now the evil daughters have chucked him out, well, serves the old senile idiot right. Who can care. No, give me Macbeth with its genius fast-moving plot and Hamlet with its genius characters and brilliantly various scenes throughout. You can stuff your turgid King Lear.
Jane Smiley dials down the ranting and raving – we’re getting this story from the point of view of Goneril, an “evil daughter”. It turns out (Surprise!! Not!!) that this midwestern King Lear was an abusive (in every way) father and a violent tyrant. Just another domestic Radovan Karadzic, just another good ole Josef Fritzl.

What Jane Smiley dials up is endless itemising of the stuff farm people have in their lives and particularly how they dress and what they cook. Detail? Yes, we have detail :

Here was Caroline, sitting on the couch, her dirndl skirt fanned out around her, her hands folded in her lap, her lace-trimmed ankle socks and black Mary Janes stuck out in front of her...

He was wearing cowboy boots, the ones he always wore off the farm. He had two or three pairs, and the high heels made his legs look long. He was in better shape than Ty, although not without a little thickness in the middle.

(He had two or three pairs? Gee, what about that. They made his legs look long? No way!)

And the book is also full to the brim of farm-coloured white noise, like this:

Starting about the fifteenth of September, and every day after that, Ty took the portable moisture tester out into the fields, hoping against hope that with good weather he could start harvesting early. When he came back, he and Jess drove the two combines, the big three-year-old six-row picker and the old two-row picker and Daddy had bought used five years earlier, already with four thousand hours on it. There was also the old cornpicker, still sitting in Daddy’s barn, that took the whole ears instead of shelled grain like the combines. Using the cornpicker would mean more storage, since there were two slatted corncribs at the east edge of Mel’s corner…and blah blah blah for a long paragraph more.

Could be, then, that this was never going to be a hit with me. And it wasn’t. It was no fun. Not one half-smile to be had in the whole 372 pages. It was dour, it was worthy, it was plodding, it was thoroughly unenlightening, it was like am I ever going to finish this?, it was gritted teeth and effort and in the end it was barely credible.

As flies to wanton boys, are we to the Pulitzer Prize committee;
They bore us for their sport.
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Reading Progress

February 14, 2016 – Shelved
February 14, 2016 – Shelved as: to-read-novels
March 20, 2016 – Started Reading
March 27, 2016 – Shelved as: novels
March 27, 2016 – Finished Reading

Comments Showing 1-7 of 7 (7 new)

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message 1: by Ivonne (new)

Ivonne Rovira This review was inspired. Thanks.

David Schaafsma :) Enjoyed it. Your review. And the book, as I recall, quite a bit, when I read it as it came out. I hadn't known it was a King Lear story, and there's a couple surprises I literally gasped at. Maybe now I would think it is a bit wooden, the Lear-ing of the cornfield.

message 3: by Dusan (new)

Dusan Thanks, I've just removed it from my to-read shelf. Her writing seems ghastly, too.

Paul Bryant However - I would really recommend Jane Smiley's book about literary history 13 Ways of Looking at the Novel - I think that is excellent.

message 5: by Lulu (new) - added it

Lulu 13 Ways - definitely worth spot reading for excellent analysis and commentary, whether you are reading one of the classics or want to know more about an author's writing style.
(BTW I loved A Thousand Acres.)

message 6: by Dillwynia (new) - added it

Dillwynia Peter I love your review. I am still going to try it, but I shall keep your comments in mind.

Sher Couldn't agree more!

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