Early Warning by Jane Smiley, book review: The complete chronicle of American life

Smiley continues the galloping biography of the Langdon family

Rosie Goldsmith
Thursday 30 April 2015 14:35 BST

Do you still pick up each new Jane Smiley novel and hope for another A Thousand Acres? And dream of being sucked into that emotional vortex of family life with its Shakespearean grandeur? Does your heart beat faster knowing that her latest project is again a family story set on a farm in Iowa?

The Last Hundred Years is Smiley's trilogy, which follows the Langdon family from 1920 to 2019. She's tackled several narrative forms in her 14 novels and here's another: a trilogy teeming with characters and interwoven stories, in the footsteps of her beloved Dickens and Trollope. But did I really scribble the words ''boring'' and ''baggy'' in my notebook about volume one: Some Luck? The novel has one short chapter for each year which skims over people's lives, switching viewpoints, always the outside observer. It's impossible to remember everyone's names, the plain language making the reader long for ''something to happen'', beyond kids learning to walk or soybeans replacing oats.

After closing Early Warning though, the second and latest volume, I finally got it. Smiley surprises with each new novel and I like where she takes me on her tireless literary adventures and compulsive, unpretentious storytelling. Early Warning continues the galloping chronological biography of a family and of the American century, year by year, child by child. They grow up, move away to Chicago, California, New York; they make money, change nappies, have sex and sweep the yard. In each family, Smiley seems to be saying that there will always be boring and baggy moments. Even fictional characters must do the washing-up!

Some Luck begins in Iowa in 1920 and ends in 1953. Farmers Walter and Rosanna Langdon have six children; five survive: Frank, Joe, Lillian, Henry and Claire. If Volume One was ''down on the farm in rural Iowa with mom and pop'' then Early Warning is about ''money, war, city life and baby boomers: the siblings story''. It is also utterly engaging. We understand Frank's cool disengagement and bizarre love life; we are respectful of his stoical brother Joe, the farmer who stays behind; protective of Lillian who marries the patriotic-patriarch, Arthur, and we are delighted by the literature-loving, gay Henry and of Claire's determination to break free of overbearing Paul. Politics and history happen on and offstage: discussed at dinner or directly experienced. The Cold War enters the Langdon's lives; Vietnam takes lives; feminism, cults and global capitalism challenge or corrupt. In 1961 we watch Arthur (CIA spymaster) pacing the bedroom after the Bay of Pigs debacle; we listen to Rosanna and Minnie commenting on JFK's inauguration on TV, mocking Jackie Kennedy's French suits.

With countless characters and 33 chapters, Smiley covers most issues: therapy, homosexuality, cults, race, divorce, adultery and three decades of changing crops, gadgets, fashions, language and music. She doesn't judge. There are no major revelations or plot twists. Location dictates well-being. The dialogue is funny and real. The story rolls along. Tim's death is traumatic; Lillian and Rosanna die in quiet, heart-breaking prose. These aren't spoilers: the point of all this seems to be, we live, we die, we're all equal. Early Warning is a masterpiece of quick and perfectly executed brushstrokes. When the trilogy is completed (this year) we'll have a major addition to the grand chronicle of American Life.

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