144 of 162 people found the following review helpful
on February 27, 2007
When this book was chosen by our book club for this month's theme of "tragedy," I approached reading it with some trepidation. There are a number of things that I don't care for in literature, and one of them is the family drama which centers on the drama as drama for its own sake, rather than to say something more about the world. Part of my bias against this kind of writing comes from having cut my eyeteeth on science fiction, the literature of ideas which, at its best, is about today as much as it is about a future. I also spent three years in a creative writing program where, god bless them, my fellow students seemed to spend a lot of time writing autobiographical stories that didn't have much to say beyond it sucks to grow up in fill-in-the-blank. The book had won a Pulitzer, and if there's anything I learned in my MFA classes on literature, an award was often a signal that a book was not for the reader but written for the critics. A Thousand Acres screamed to me from its cover that it was that kind of book, that focused on the dissolution of the family as seen through a retelling of the King Lear story. I shuddered.
But, really, I shouldn't have. Having previously read two books by Jane Smiley (the quite amusing MOO and the intelligent and thoughtful Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Novel), I should have given her the benefit of the doubt. Within the first fifty pages, I was surprised that Smiley had drawn me into her story, and while it was still fairly mundane (the family dog wasn't going to start talking on page 100, to my dismay), I found the voice of the narrator intriguing and wondered just how much of King Lear Smiley was going to be able to transpose to 1970s Iowa. Turns out, quite a bit, in a wondrously deft way that I would have termed a 'tour de force' if I used that phrase anymore.
The narrator is the eldest of the three daughters, and instead of a king dividing up his kingdom, the family farm is to be divided among the daughters somewhat early by forming a corporation in which he gives control of the farm to the children, in a sudden move that delights the older daughters and their husbands and alarms the youngest, who no longer lives on the farm nor has much to do with it. Her concern about the alacrity of his decision infuriates the father, so much that he cuts her out of the paperwork process and thus the land itself. Pretty much every plot point in the Shakespearean play is touched upon in some manner, but never so roughly that the connections feel strained. If anything, Smiley's version is much, much more subtle in its understanding of the character's motivations, giving both a sympathetic portrait of the older two sisters that is entirely missing in the play, as well as making the Lear figure less of a madman and more of a stubborn one, such that when his stubbornness leads him into the rain, his madness becomes if not sensible, at least reasonable. You don't necessarily take any one character's side in this fight, but none seems such a villain.
What Smiley does that, I think, one-ups Shakespeare even more than making the female characters sympathetic is that she truly makes the tragedy about the land as about the people. In the background, and infusing everything the character's do to a point, is the thousand acres of the title. Perhaps it is because it is hard for us to imagine a kingdom as something one can own and pass to your children, for it's very easy to grasp the concept of these thousand acres, how much they mean to the family, and how tragic it is that this family cannot hold on to that land. In the past, I've been less than sympathetic to the concept of the family farm, but even my cold heart can't read what Smiley has described here and see it as anything but a tragedy.
What this novel has over the modern literature that I feared it would be is not only a plot (people die here, not to mention being maimed and insulted and cruelly treated) but a larger meaning, and that big picture of this being more than just a personal tragedy, is what makes this worthwhile reading. Out of the group who read this for book club, I turned out to rate this book the highest, and that is to say, I recommend it strongly.
78 of 87 people found the following review helpful
on November 15, 1999
I am a college student, and as a logical step after readingKing Lear in my literary analysis class, we then turned our focus on Athousand Acres. I can't say how glad I am that this book fell across my path. Throughout my book my opinions about the characters changed so often, that I didn't know who to trust and who was the good guy and who was the bad guy. I came in with the expectation that Larry and Caroline would be the heroes, and that even though Ginny was the narrator we would clearly realize that she is evil. However, the characterization in this book is so deep and intricate that it is nearly impossible to lable one character as truly evil, except for the surprising conclusion of Larry Cook, whom I hated with a passion. However, this book can not be read with the expectation that it will give the reader pleasure. Instead, it reaches into the very depths of your emotions and twists them around with so vigorous a hand that you are nearly sickened by some of the action in the story. This book has some of the greatest depth I have ever known in a novel, and incorporates many subjects and undertones into its plot.
47 of 51 people found the following review helpful
Most modern novels fail to surprise me. They telegraph where they are going in such obvious ways that I often feel I could write the next chapters and the ending before I read them. Jane Smiley in A Thousand Acres also telegraphs a lot . . . but underneath those obvious road signs, she's built a more powerful message for those who care to read between the lines. Although most people don't want to read a book as long and as dark as this one, it's well worth your while. The character and plot developments display an amazing set of symmetries that are works of genius.
Those who will love this book the most are people who know farm life in the American Middle West well. Having had a grandfather, father and several uncles who were farmers in Illinois raising lots of corn and hogs, I was first impressed by how well Ms. Smiley captured the attitudes, experiences, psychology and perspectives of the American family farmer during the 1930s through the 1980s. I felt like I was reading the history of my own family for about the first third of the book.
Then, she powerfully shifts the ground as the patriarch of the family, Larry Cook, decides to cede control over the family farm to avoid estate taxes. From there, a superficial reading will see this as a modern version of King Lear. I think that obvious parallel is not an accurate view of the book. Instead, this book takes on the qualities of a Greek tragedy as the characters move inexorably towards their preordained fates. What's the source of the tragedy? It's the pride of the American family farmer who lusts for more land and production.
In fact, this book could have been titled "Life Drains Away" as the forces set into action by the characters create an ironic threat to some of the same characters.
I was most impressed by the subtle case being made for healthier farming methods and changed values among family farmers. Rarely does a novel make such an objective point with such power.
At times, you'll feel that the novel is more than a little over the top. But that's what makes the novel work as a tragic story. I do agree that Ms. Smiley could probably have cut back on some of the darkness, still made her point, and possibly had a masterpiece of a story. But some writers need to shake the heavens with their furies . . . and we can hardly blame them when they succeed.
Well done, Ms. Smiley!
90 of 108 people found the following review helpful
As I read Jane Smiley's prize-winning novel, I tried my darnedest not to think about those much-ballyhooed parallels with *King Lear*. I find the "updated version of" phenomenon, which includes, for example, Helen Fielding's *Bridget* diary (*Price and Prejudice* update) to be gimmicky and distracting. Write your own novels, people!
That said, I can now declare that I think *A Thousand Acres* is a good, but not "great" novel. Jane Smiley is an excellent writer, and although the book starts a bit slowly, the momentum and intrigue build as pages fly by. Her ability to describe the landscapes, moods, and rhythms of midwestern farm life is commendable, and for me, this proved to be perhaps the most consistently satisfying aspect of the book.
The plot can only be described as "dark," perhaps excessively so to seem plausible. Incest, insanity, suicide, the casual plotting of vengeful murders--anything that might form the basis for an extended commentary on the possibilities for depravity in the Human Condition--it's all here! There is so much depravity here, in fact, that after a while I found myself (figuratively) rolling my eyes at each new twist in the plot. A bit over the top, Jane!
I confess that I found it dismaying that each and every male character in the book proved himself to be rotten, exhibiting behavior ranging anywhere from insensitive clottishness to manipulative and smarmy don Juanism to ranting, bullying, incest-practicing insanity. What a bunch of great guys! In all fairness, the women in the book aren't much better. The book's protagonist seems to be the one island of reasonableness until the surprising (and in my view, implausible) plot twist that proves that she, too, is capable of ANYTHING (I don't feel I should give the plot away here :-) ).
Overall, the book is gripping, well-written, and certainly worth reading. To my taste, however, Jane Smiley has gone a bit over the top in her portrayal of characters and in some aspects of the plot. The book ultimately turns into a veritable caricature of a "dark novel revealing the hideous inner secrets that lie behind the placid facade," blah, blah, blah.
19 of 21 people found the following review helpful
on July 4, 2001
This novel was assigned to my AP English Lit class as a companion to King Lear. I was less than thrilled by the selections since I'm not a big fan of Shakespeare's plays and I thought that A Thousand Acres would be boring because it was set on a farm. Actually reading the works dispelled those prejudices: King Lear became my favorite Shakespearean play, and to say that A Thousand Acres changed my life would not be hyperbolic.
A Thousand Acres is indeed about farm life, but it is so much more than just that. It's about family dynamics and the secrets that shape children into the adults that they become. The Cook family patriarch is Larry, a prosperous farmer. He's laconic but prone to abusive outbursts, and this volitile temperment makes him unpredictible. His wife died when his three daughters were children and he raised them alone. Ginny is the oldest, but the least assertive. Her role in the family is to placate Larry when he is angered (which is quite frequently, given his mercurial nature). Rose, the middle child, is rather passive-aggressive. As a teenager, she acted out by sneaking out at night and engaging in promiscuous behavior. Even her choice for a mate was a rebellious act: Ginny married a hard-working farmer her family knew for years, while Rose wed a musician who never adapted well to farmlife. Rose is a survivor, and although she behaves badly (like cheating on her husband with the man that Ginny is also sleeping with), she is my favorite character because of her strength. At the end of the book, Rose says that her "sole, solitaty, lonely accomplishment" was that she "didn't forgive the unforgivable. Forgiveness is a reflex for when you can't stand what you know." Caroline, the youngest, is the only one who moved off the farm. Because she lives in the city, she is exempt from the cooking and cleaning for Larry that Ginny and Rose perform daily. Caroline is Larry's obvious favorite, but he cuts her out of his legacy when she shows some skepticism to his plan to give the farm to his daughters immediately.
The transfer of power symbolized by Larry's gift to Ginny and Rose changes the lives of all involved. After their father retires, he starts losing his grip on reality. Out of necessity, Ginny and Rose become more assertive to their father, and Larry chafes at the role reversal. Caroline returns to make ammends with Larry, and is appalled by the way her sisters treat him (which is really better than he deserves). With Caroline's aid, Larry attempts to regain the farm through the courts.
I don't want to ruin the book for those who haven't yet read it, but several other reviews allude to a decades-old secret that Rose reminds Ginny of. She asserts that Ginny was sexually abused by Larry as well, which Ginny denies. Ginny later recovers a memory of the abuse, and this knowledge contributes to the acrimony within the family. Like King Lear, this story of an ordinary family in rural 1970's America ends tragically. The survivers are changed by the series of events- and not necessarily for the better. A lot of people think this book is depressing because the characters don't really become "better" for their trials. Well that's how real life is. As a person who had been abused as a child, believe me when I say that although most challenges once overcome, contribue to a person's character, child abuse is not one of them.
And if there's one thing Smiley does fantastically in A Thousand Acres, it's depicting life as it is. Some of the plot was a little improbable (eg. Ginny's recovered memory of the abuse: I believe in repressed memories, but not without a little skepticism. From my own experiences, I can't really fathom that something that traumatic could be forgotten.), but it's a strong story. There are very few books that bring me to tears, but this was one of them. This is a taxing book to read because of the emotional involvement the reader experiences, but that is what makes it so worthy of being read.
49 of 59 people found the following review helpful
on May 31, 2004
This is a book about which reasonable people obviously are going to disagree, but I found it so dull as to be a simply excrutiating read. Smiley's story of the decline of an Iowa farm family has the makings of a modern-day tragedy, perhaps, but her prose style, which dwells on innumerable tiny but insignificant details of everyday life--every vegetable in the garden, every hot dish at the social, every item in the closet of the narrator's mother, list after list of details that play no discernible role in the story--makes plowing the thousand acres of the book's title seem a lot easier than plowing through this interminable novel. For page after boring page, nothing whatever of significance happens; instead, Smiley's prose reads like an exercise in descriptive language from a creative writing class. And despite all this description, the characters of the novel remain curiously beyond our interest and seem often to act out of inexplicable whim. Such is true even of the narrator, whose most bizarre act (I won't reveal it, but it has to do with liver sausages) comes out of nowhere and ends up meaning nothing. Smiley obviously knows farming, but her writing in this novel cries out for the touch of a careful editor.
18 of 20 people found the following review helpful
on July 31, 2006
I must admit to being completely flabbergasted by the negative reviews of this novel. I could barely put it down, it moved me so. Most reviews focus on the family relationships that are hauntingly revealed by Jane Smiley throughout the book; I also found the descriptions of the land and farming practices to be insightful and engrossing. This is one book that doesn't disappoint, and will stick with you for a long time.
33 of 40 people found the following review helpful
on November 20, 2004
I have read many reviews of 'A Thousand Acres', and I have one point to make about many of the other reviews - please stop believing that this book is the story of 'King Lear'. It is not. That is the whole point of Smiley's book. She used the fundamental story-line of 'King Lear' to base her novel on. Entirely separately from whether you like the novel or not, it is not the same as 'King Lear'. All of the characters are different; Jess, Ginny, Rose, Caroline, Larry, Harold and Pete are all much more complex and different characters than they are in 'King Lear'. Moreover, if you read interviews with Jane Smiley, she says that she based virtually the entire novel on one speech in 'King Lear' which is approximately four lines long - this gave her the idea for the abuse of Ginny and Rose by Larry.
Secondly, having established that they are not the same, personally I feel that this is one of the most tragic novels I have ever read. All of the characters are poisoned and seem beyond repair. Caroline escapes, but also loses her family - not just her mother at an early age, but also her father (and her memories of him are tainted by the abuse allegations) and her sisters. Rose dies, bitter and alone, her husband having killed himself and her lover having left her. Pete, of course, kills himself (it is not explicit, but seems fairly certain) because life on the farm with this motely collection of people is too much for him. Pammy and Linda are left, at best, self-sufficient. Larry dies alone and unloved (this may be fair, of course). Ty's wife leaves him and his dreams for the farm collapse - he moves away to try and start again. Ginny herself, abused and damaged, has had an affair, tried to kill her sister, remembered some terrible abuse - and winds up alone, unable to let people get close to her, regretful of her life and unconnected to Pammy and Linda.
FINALLY: You are free to have your own opinion on this book, whether you think it absolutely terrible or a work of genius. But please, PLEASE know your facts before you start commenting! One reviewer paid so much attention to the novel that she didn't even know where it was set (she said 'somewhere in Midwest America, I think' - my dear, it says on the back of the book that the story is set in IOWA. The second person, 'a reader' (the title of the review was 'Lear comparison very misleading. don't bother with this book' and gave the novel 2 stars, also seems to think that Ginny never 'actually explicitly remembers anything herself.' May I draw your attention to pages 225-229 and page 258? Ginny certainly remembers the abuse there.
And finally, all those who mistakenly believe Jess' name is 'Jessie'. It is not.
Read the book before you criticise it - at least try and know what you're talking about.
11 of 12 people found the following review helpful
on September 6, 2003
I've read some virulent commentary on good books before, but some of the reviews of "A Thousand Acres" really bite the big one. It always stuns me that people inject their own personal morals onto fiction and then get disappointed when the story doesn't pan out as they wish.
Personally, I enjoyed this book tremendously, but not for the much-hyped King Lear comparison. If you forget about that and remain in Ginny's frame of reference, you can see that this story is ALL about betrayal. She is betrayed at so many levels - her husband (married her for the farm), her father (abused her), Jesse (sleeps with her then with her sister, Rose), Rose (her only confidante becomes her sexual rival), Catherine (Ginny raised her after the mother's death and she dismisses Ginny), her mother (early death), her neighbor (knew that abuse was going on but did nothing), and even the land (poisoned wells lead to miscarriages). I completely understand why Ginny decides to avenge the ultimate betrayal, that of Rose; and why she runs away from the land to spend the rest of her life anonymously. Ginny is a well-drawn character of a trusting sheep-like woman, reared to submissivness, who fights by flight.
The only reason why I give this novel 4 instead of 5 stars is because Smiley never gives clear reasons why the father gives the land to his daughters in the first place. Considering his tyrannical, bullying nature, his affinity for drink, and his pride, I just don't understand the motive. Of course, as the book progresses, neither does he, and maybe that's why we are left to wonder. Since the book is told through Ginny's eyes, we know she doesn't really know, either.
I recommend this book for those in love with prose and who like the characters to be three dimensional.
11 of 12 people found the following review helpful
on June 28, 2005
Long on my list to get to, I finally picked this up half-heartedly, then could hardly put it down. It gripped me as few books have recently--a powerful exploration of the nature of conflict, betrayal and forgiveness, or the lack thereof, within family relationships. I was slightly disappointed by Smiley's unsubtle choice of prolonged sexual abuse as a plot device, but I found her exposition of the the undercurrents in seemingly "functional" relationships to ring fundamentally, if more mildly, true even for far less extreme situations. Some reviewers have complained that some characters' actions weren't consistent. I would counter that humans AREN'T consistent, and even those closest to us can turn out to have aspects utterly unknown and astonishing to us. No, most of us don't attempt to murder a sibling, but the confusion of recognizing and reconciling emotions that encompass both a child's limited understanding--roots that are nearly impossible ever to fully eradicate--and the insights of an adult perspective felt very real to me. If you read mainly for a great story and to be entertained, this is not the book for you. If you like thought-provoking probings of (some elements of) the human condition, and don't get mired in reading this book too literally, I think you might find it as interesting and engrossing as I did.