A Thousand Acres by Jane Smiley
Genre: Literary Fiction
In my continuing quest to read the Pulitzer winners, I picked up Jane Smiley’s A Thousand Acres, the Fiction winner for 1992. It’s set in Iowa, but it’s modeled on Shakespeare’s King Lear. This definitely comes through when reading, but the tragedy that worked for Shakespeare (and was over the top even then) is a little overwhelming in a modern setting, and there were many plot elements in the second half especially that really just made me take a step back to say, “Wait, what?” For those reasons, I gave it three stars.
Essentially, this is a book about a family struggling over changing times and what to do with the family farm as Larry, the Cook family patriarch, gets older. This results in a power struggle, infighting, and feuds that are utterly predictable if you know King Lear, but they make sense all the same. It’s perfectly believable that there might be some problems that arise when you’ve got three daughters (and their spouses) all vying for an interest and control of the farm they consider theirs.
We’re shown this feud and the whole world of the book through Ginny’s eyes (Ginny, of course, being based on Shakespeare’s Goneril). At first, she’s easy to sympathize with: she’s certainly experienced tragedy and has had by all accounts a fairly mediocre life. She eventually becomes a little too unpredictable, though, and seems to be losing control of herself, which isn’t exactly enjoyable to read.
This book has sibling rivalry and feuding, marital issues, sexual assault (if you’re triggered by the idea of parent-child sex assault, this won’t be the book for you), death, mental illness, and judgey neighbors. It really has everything you need to create a complete mess of problems for the characters. My problem, though, is that there was a little too much mess. I think the issue of sex assault came completely out of nowhere and it didn’t make sense to me. I don’t think this book needed it for any reason and I think it would have been a more effective story without it.
That said, the writing was good and the story does draw you in, moreso if you’re a fan of Shakespeare and/or you’ve read King Lear. I’d recommend giving the play a read before this book for sure; it makes the elements of tragedy and the characters’ sometimes bizarre-seeming actions make more sense, and it makes the whole story more meaningful.
As far as whether I’d recommend it, I’m not sure. If you’re into retellings, and you have a high tolerance for gratuitous tragedy, it’s an interesting read. It’s a relatively quick read, too, especially for a Pulitzer winner. I don’t regret reading it, and if you’re a fan of literary fiction, retellings, or feuding families on farms, give it a try!