Wednesday, April 9, 2008

1992: A Thousand Acres by Jane Smiley

A Thousand Acres by Jane Smiley (1991)
Fiction, 384 pages
First Anchor Books Edition (2003)
A division of Random House, Inc.
1992 Pulitzer Prize Winner

Cross posted here

A successful Iowa farmer decides to divide his farm between his three daughters. When the youngest objects, she is cut out of his will. This sets off a chain of events that brings dark truths to light and explodes long-suppressed emotions. An ambitious reimagining of Shakespeare' s King Lear cast upon a typical American community in the late twentieth century, A Thousand Acres takes on themes of truth, justice, love, and pride, and reveals the beautiful yet treacherous topography of humanity. - Copy from back flap

Jane Smiley writes a contemporary novel with many similarities to Shakespeare’s The Tragedy of King Lear. Not only will the plot details be familiar, but also the major themes as well as the main characters. What makes this story contemporary, is that it is told through the eyes of Ginny (Goneril). Considering the strong patriarchal theme of the play, this retelling from a female point of view offers to challenge those familiar with Shakespeare’s tragedy. It is almost as if you are getting to hear the other side of the story; one that would seemingly change the dynamics completely.

However, when reading this book, I became aware that when it comes to power, manipulation, generational conflict, obsession, and madness, gender really is not the determining factor nor are the ramifications significantly different than if this were as male dominated as the play.

Conflict in any style, by any means, has its own ‘life’. It feeds upon hate, and thrives by the inability of those involved to forgive. As noted by Ginny:
We’ve always known families…that live together for years without speaking, for whom a historic dispute over land or money burns so hot that it engulfs every other subject, every other point of relationship or affection.
An aging father’s decision sets into motion a series of events that ultimately cost lives and destroys relationships. This is the similarity the novel has with the play. What differs is how it is told, and who dies, although I would mention that there are different types of death; spiritual and physical. Thus the correlation between the two becomes even more apparent.

I must admit I did not read every page of this book. However, I have never really gotten through all of King Lear either. The subject matter is dark, depressing, and at times frustrating. Smiley does well in updating and expounding upon Shakespeare’s tragedy. This was not an easy book to read, and I could not do it in one sitting as I have with others. In addition, I am guilty of ‘flipping’ through and speed-reading many passages.

Although deserving of a Pulitzer, I am only going to give it a 3 Star rating (out of 5) as I did put it down and often. But I always returned and did my best to muddle through. Any difficulty I had in dealing with the subject matter was my own, and in no way reflects upon Smiley's skill as an author.

1 comment:

J.C. Montgomery said...

This is a bit weird, commenting on my own post, but Mrstreme (Jill) asked an interesting question about boning up on King Lear before reading A Thousand Acres.

In case anyone was wondering the same, this was part of my response:

"Brushing up on Lear isn't really necessary if you already understand its theme. The only issue I see with knowing 'Lear' too well is that one may be distracted from taking in what the author is attempting in her 're-imaging' of Shakespeare's play because they are continually looking for that which is similar and that which is not.

The main thing, for me at least, was even though she took the work, modernized and feminized it, the power of the theme remained intact. And because of that, I actually grew to have a better appreciation of what Shakespeare created.

However, I must reiterate, this book is dark, can be depressing, and (not to give too much away) has some disturbing subject matter."

Not sure I really got that all across in my review, so I thought I would share it here.