I first read this when I was around 17, doing a comparative literature course on Shakespeare and contemporary writers. This was my first time reading anything by Jane Smiley, and to be honest, the Pulitizer didn’t mean a whole lot to me! Now, I love King Lear – in fact, it is my favourite of Shakespeare’s published plays. Reading Shakespeare at 17, especially one of the less “famous” ones, was quite daunting, but reading Smiley’s interpretation alongside it, made it not only easier, but it gave me a better appreciation of it.
If you don’t know the plot, here is a very simplified version: Smiley presents us with a family that owns a 1000 acre farm in 1970’s Iowa. We have Larry, Caroline, Ginny and Rose who are obviously representing Lear, Goneril, Regan and Cordelia. Larry, who is getting on in years, decides to transfer ownership of his farm between his 3 daughters, with Caroline not agreeing. This begins a journey in which none of the characters fare very well.
Much like Shakespeare’s play, Smiley gives us a rich novel full of varying themes. However, it is also simple and honest. I say simple not as an insult, but indeed a compliment. Smiley is able portray common tragedies and instances of abhorrence and turn them into a multi-faceted series of events that propel the actions and growth of the characters.
I’m not going to go on and on about this book because sometimes, less is more!
If you haven’t read this novel, do yourself a favour and pick up a copy today!