Friday, December 11, 2015
Book review: Golden Age: A Novel by Jane Smiley
I knew going into this book, the third in the series, that the number of characters and the story line was getting complicated. For once I was grateful for the family tree at the beginning instead of that being a red flag (although it can give away spoilers as each book covers 33 years so someone who is a child at the beginning of one book can be married with a child of their own by the end.) What started off as the story of an Iowa farm family stretched to cover all of America, from California to D.C. and New York. One branch did stay in Iowa on the farm, but the others have gone into finance, politics, and ranching. The characters, considering the number of them, are relatively easy to keep track of. I sometimes needed to pause half a second for the major characters (yes, some of the minor ones, the children now grown up, I needed to consult the family tree for.) But they were perfectly drawn and distinct.
There were a couple of shockers as the book moved into the twenty-first century. Some were in retrospect not shocking (which is the best kind: the well-set-up but not obvious ones). All were in keeping with the characters' personalities. I do with the book hadn't skewed so heavily political at the end. And it's a little complicated since the book spills over a few years past where we are now, into 2019. I wonder about people reading this book in the early 2020s who don't think to consult the publication date, and wonder why a book that was so historically accurate for 95 years suddenly went askew in the last 5, but that's really Ms. Smiley's problem to worry about. But I read it for the characters and how family changes over time, not for political harangues (even ones I might partly agree with.) Still, that's a rather small part of the book and overall, it's excellent. I think I would have enjoyed it more if I'd waited until all three books were out and read them one after the other, as if it were one giant 1200 page family saga. The gaps between books are what caused it to drag a bit and me to have to fumble occasionally for who a character was precisely. By the last third of each book, I was skipping along merrily, having found both the pacing and the character lists caught up in my brain at last. (And of course I didn't have that problem at all in the first book.)
It is a large tome, the series is enormous, but it is a worthy book (and series of books) to read. Ms. Smiley really gives perspective on the last hundred years in America and on the American dream and the facade versus reality. It's beautifully written, with indelible characters who participate in most every aspect of this country's last century (but not in a celebrity-bumping-into Forrest Gump kind of way.) I wouldn't be surprised if, in 10 years, this series were considered a modern American classic.
I checked this book out of the library.