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A Thousand Acres: A Novel Paperback – December 2, 2003
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“Brilliant. . . . Absorbing. . . . A thrilling work of art.” —Chicago Sun-Times
“A family portrait that is also a near-epic investigation into the broad landscape, the thousand dark acres of the human heart. . . . The book has all the stark brutality of a Shakespearean tragedy.” —The Washington Post Book World
“Powerful and poignant.” —The New York Times Book Review
“Superb. . . . There seems to be nothing Smiley can’t write about fabulously well.” —San Francisco Chronicle
“It has been a long time since a novel so surprised me with its power to haunt. . . . A Thousand Acres [has] the prismatic quality of the greatest art.” —Chicago Tribune
“Absorbing. . . . Exhilarating. . . . An engrossing piece of fiction.” —Time
“A full, commanding novel. . . . A story bound and tethered to a lonely road in the Midwest, but drawn from a universal source. . . . Profoundly American.” —The Boston Globe
From the Inside Flap
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.
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Loosely based on the plot of "King Lear," this Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Jane Smiley is a masterpiece that unabashedly delves into the hearts and souls of her characters, exposing something so raw and tender, one almost has to turn away because it seems so private and personal. But it is humanity she is exposing. It is all of us she is exposing.
You can fully understand and appreciate this book without ever having read "King Lear"; however, for those who have read Shakespeare's play, it's fun to see the parallels. Kindle's X-Ray feature helpfully tells you how each character in "A Thousand Acres" is aligned to the characters in "King Lear."
Jane Smiley is a writer's writer. I heard her speak at the 2015 National Book Festival, and she said she wanted to write books in many genres. This takes not only prodigious talent, but also great courage. It's comfortable to write well in one way, especially after achieving commercial success. But it must be a bit unnerving to try something so radically different, and she seems to do this with each book she writes--and succeeds in it.
Quality/readability/discussion: This is a very well-written book with lots of depth, wit, word play, and emotion. The characters are well developed and their growth is a well-paced, slow reveal. There is a good tension and pacing to the pages. The subject matter may seem dull (the central female characters live mostly in a farm setting with their family, and the major crisis deals with family trauma) but the story is anything but that. Despite the rural and bucolic background, this book is a page-turning, taunt tale. There are many layers to these characters that unfold slowly and deliciously. The discussion went on for hours. We, of course, discussed the obvious connection to Shakespeare's King Lear - and that particular topic was engrossing. Smiley presents the older two daughters (in the play, they were the one-dimensional villains) in a more sympathetic light... giving depth and reason to their decisions. There were many topics here that we picked apart including family dynamics, feminist angles, money, hierarchy, destiny, history, and Americana. Six out of seven women felt that the book was very readable, with one member siting it as a difficult or challenging read. See below for TRIGGER topics (which present spoilers) if you have any worry about this book as a viable option.
Games/Food/Etc.: This book developed a fun potluck theme (ironically... the potluck itself) as there were lots of mentions of church suppers, country dinners, country kitchens, and of course... the cuisine of Midwest Iowa. The games were lots of fun as well, with a highlight being Shakespeare trivia.
Overall: This book rated high due to readability and great discussion. The book was praised for its quality of writing and its amazing, intellectual, and fresh examination of one of Shakespeare's lesser-known works. Everyone enjoyed the surprising twists and turns found within the narrative. One member found the book a bit dry and boring, but all of the other members found it to be fascinating (which was a bit of a fun surprise, as our favorite genre is thrillers/mysteries).
TRIGGER WARNINGS: DO NOT READ BELOW IF YOU DO NOT WANT SPOILERS. These topics could be considered trigger items for some book club readers. Please note that none of our book club members had any issues with these topics and the way they were explored or presented, but I include them as I get a request often to do so. This book includes feminist topics, adultery, a woman suffering from breast cancer, molestation/sexual abuse, and a graphic injury that occurs "off camera."
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.
If you haven't read this novel, do yourself a favour and pick up a copy today!