Book Review: A Thousand Acres by Jane Smiley

A Thousand Acres is a Pulitzer winning re-imagination of King Lear, set on an Iowa farm during the 1970s. It’s a beautifully written tale of one family’s quick and complete implosion. I mostly really liked it but towards the end I disliked the characters so much, including the narrator, that I was ready for it to be over.

I read A Thousand Acres as part of the 2020 Thoughtful Reading Challenge. April’s challenge is to read a Pulitzer Prize winner because current year winners are typically announced in April. However, this year the winners won’t be revealed until May due to the pandemic.

The King Lear character in this novel is Larry Cook, a proud and successful farmer. His daughters are Ginny (the narrator), Rose, and Caroline (the first letters of their names handily correspond to Goneril, Regan, and Cordelia). On the surface, things seem to be fine with the family – the farm does well, the daughters and their families seem to get along, and although Larry is a rigid tyrant, everyone has mostly fallen into a routine that minimizes the strife with him.

It all begins to unravel when Larry suddenly and inexplicably decides to incorporate the 1,000 acre farm and divide control among his three daughters. Coinciding with this event is the arrival of former neighbor, Jess Clark, who represents the character of Edmund from King Lear. The two events lead to the family’s downfall. Adultery, insanity, greed, betrayal and memories of abuse ensue and are too much for the family to weather.

I thought this was a clever way to bring King Lear into the 20th century. The farm setting makes sense because a thousand acres of prime Iowa farmland is like its own little kingdom. And Larry Cook ruled his kingdom like a tyrant. While I recall having some sympathy for the character of King Lear, there’s nothing sympathetic about Larry, and I think that’s a shortcoming. I didn’t care much about what happened to him.

The pacing of events was interesting. Larry’s decision about the farm and the subsequent meltdown of his family seemed pretty quick to me. For example, Ginny goes from saying of her husband, Ty, “the fact was that even after seventeen years of marriage, I was still pleased to see him every time he appeared,” to unapologetically cheating on him a couple of months later. I think the speed of the implosion represents that it was all just a house of cards built on a shaky foundation. Otherwise, it didn’t make much sense to me.

On the other hand, the author very slowly reveals the extent of Ginny’s and Rose’s treachery, like peeling back the layers of a rotten onion. Ginny is at first bland and meek but steadily evolves into someone capable of cold-blooded murder. And Rose is depicted as a sympathetic breast cancer survivor until she’s slowly revealed to be a self-serving manipulator. At the beginning of the novel, I couldn’t see how the two could be capable of Shakespearean-level perfidy, but by the end they would have made Shakespeare proud.

Aside from the clever plot and skilled character development, the prose is often beautiful, especially when Smiley describes the Iowa farmland. The descriptions are both eloquent and informative, and I sometimes felt like I was receiving a farming lesson from a poet.

Overall, I definitely recommend A Thousand Acres, but prepare yourself to despise, and maybe even hope for the demise of, most of the characters by the end of the story.

Did you read a Pulitzer Prize winner this month? Tell us all about it in the comments section.

**Reminder** May’s challenge is to read a book by a Mexican author.

7 thoughts on “Book Review: A Thousand Acres by Jane Smiley

  1. It wasn’t this month, but I recently read The Good Earth. I expected to dislike it, but was very moved by the positive and negative aspects of humanity.

    I read A Thousand Acres years ago (and really disliked it). I was surprised at my distaste for it since I LOVE Jane Smiley. My favorite novel of hers is The Greenlanders, a historical fiction book base in Greenland in the 14th century. I even went to a talk by Jane Smiley. She signed my book. If you haven’t read it (and like historical fiction at all), it’s an amazing escape to a time and place we can’t actually visit.

    I will look for a book by a Mexican author.

    Sara Lynch

    Liked by 3 people

    • I’ve avoided The Good Earth, too, because I assume I won’t like it. Maybe I need to give it a chance.

      The Greenlanders sounds interesting – I do like historical fiction. Thanks for the recommendation!

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  2. How wonderful to be reminded of this great book – I think I read it 20 years ago. There is a scene in the second half where Ginny (I think it’s Ginny) just gets in the car and drives and drives. I’ve thought about that scene a lot over the years – what would it mean to just turn your life upside down like that? I remember thinking it was very courageous, though I think in the book it is also presented as very cowardly. Thanks for the great reminder!

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    • It was Ginny. She drove right to a situation that wasn’t much better than the one she left, but I guess she was free of the farm and her old life. I wasn’t sure if the author was trying to make some kind of feminist or self-actualization point with that event.

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  3. Oh Michelle, you clearly didn’t like this book as much as I did šŸ˜¦ I thoroughly enjoyed the story – so much so, that I recommended it to my wife. She is now reading it. I will be sure to tell her not to read your blog until after she finishes but based upon a couple of her comments so far, I think she will side with you!

    So why did I like it so much? First off, it has been since college that I read King Lear and I intentionally did not go back to refresh my memory of the Shakespearean tale. With that the case, I read the story not as a modern day remake but instead as a tale of a outwardly stoic Iowa farming family. Growing up in the Midwest and now still living in farming country, I found the story of the Cook family quite believable. Many times while reading the story I was reminded of my younger years and of many of the farming families that I knew. Smiley paints a vivid and seemingly accurate portrait of life on a farm, to include the need to grow the business (pun intended) as well as adapt to the changing landscape that is farming. So many farms have “failed” in the past 25 years although not for the same reason as this one, and Smiley was able to tell a tragic story that also encompasses the larger tragedy of the American farmer. Further, her character development was exceptional since I too felt very strongly (mostly in negative ways) towards the key characters in her story. Again a strength of the novel since it is a tragedy yet I didn’t end up feeling sorry for the principal protagonists.

    I will have to look for The Greenlanders that Patrick recommended but I’m guessing I won’t find it on one of your shelves Michelle? šŸ™‚

    Liked by 2 people

    • I like that you looked at it as a story of the American farmer, rather than focusing on the Shakespeare part. I kept vacillating about the character of the banker, who convinced the family to do some things that contributed to their downfall. Was he a villain? Or did he pragmatically represent the future of farming (applying business concepts, including leverage, to grow the business)? I kept expecting the family to turn on him, but that didn’t really happen.

      I would definitely try The Greenlanders because I do like the author’s writing style. Hopefully it contains more likable characters.

      I anxiously await Molly’s comments. šŸ™‚

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  4. I was mixed on this book. I didn’t love it like George did, but I didn’t hate it either. And, to be honest, the King Lear piece was lost on me–too many years and too many books later to remember that. I completely agreed with your assessment, Michelle, about how fast things went downhill after Larry divides the farm up amongst his daughters–including he supposed dementia. Did they not see bits of that before? And Ginny betraying her marriage with Jess seemed like somewhat of a stretch for me. And I just didn’t really buy her rage turned to possible murderer with the tainted sausage. Wouldn’t she have been at least a bit worried about her beloved nieces getting it even if they didn’t really like it?? I did like the description of rural America and I, too, wondered what roll Marv Carson played in all of this. As family farms have disappeared all across our country, I think this book set in the 1970’s documents some of the issues there. As an aside, I read The Good Earth in high school (and not as part of a class, just because) and really liked it! Now, that was YEARS ago and from what I remember it was not a total page turner–it could be described as somewhat slow, but I did truly enjoy it. I should pick it up again…

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