So you have an aging, ruthless patriarch on the verge of madness deciding on a whim to divide up his property among his three daughters precipitating a descent into tragedy. The story of course is William Shakespeare’s King Lear, but also the basis of Jane Smiley’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel A Thousand Acres (1991) set in Iowa in 1979. This book was the May selection of the William & Mary Boston Alumni Chapter book club, and once again I chose to listen to the audiobook.
Unlike Shakespeare’s tragedy which sympathizes with the noble youngest daughter Cordelia, Smiley tells the story sympathetically from the point of view of the “evil” eldest daughter Ginny. The middle daughter – the outspoken Rose – and their husbands Ty and Pete are central characters while the youngest daughter Caroline is distant both emotionally and physically from the narrative. Looking for similarities with King Lear is a fun game and caught myself saying things like “Oh yeah, the old man goes out wandering in a terrible storm” and “Oh yeah, that guy is blinded.” More King Lear parallels are available at this website.
Luckily, retelling Shakespeare is not the whole story. Smiley invests a lot of effort to make the reader feel and understand the meaning of the land to Iowa farmers. In Ginny she also creates a voice of the unreliable narrator. Ginny fills in a lot of detail with ruminations on the history of the land and the story of her family.
These details coincidentally are also a weak point of the novel because at times Ginny rambles on about some tangential detail shortly after a major plot point, and it really kills the narrative. I’m not sure if this is Smiley’s problem or if it is a deliberate device to show how Ginny deludes herself. Other weaknesses are a failure to really flesh out the motivations and characters of the other principles. The whole thing seems to be a tempest in a teapot and does not reach a satisfactory conclusion. Not to mention that it’s kind of a crazy joke to have a character named Pete married to a character named Rose.
So, I’ll rate this book as good but not great. An interesting read with some real insight into the lives of Iowan farmers a generation ago, but a bit too melodramatic and too long for its own good.