My instinct was to abandon this after 50 pages. Instead I battled onto page 440 until I simply couldn’t take the boredom any more. Maybe if you grew up on a farm in America this might interest you for its period detail and painstaking stocktaking of the hardships of farm life but I’m afraid it was of little interest to me.
I loved A Thousand Acres but this read like the left-overs of that novel. It’s incredible how complex and compelling the characters in Acres were and how dull and one dimensional they are in this novel. It’s a rambling novel without artistry or structure. Often it reads like a stocktaking of life rather than a dramatization of it. Early on we get the pov of a six month old baby which was as pointless as it was annoying. The prose style is uninspired too – it reads like an underpainting, a first draft, sketchy, chatty and simply worded. The father and mother have no inner life and so hold no interest. They have countless children – I lost count of the exact number – and of these children one, Frank, was interesting. Every time Frank is the focus the book got more interesting. But I kept thinking of all the brilliant artistry in Kate Atkinson’s family saga Behind the Scenes at the Museum and how mediocre this was in comparison.
Jane Smiley has written more than thirty books, more books than one could comfortable carry from one room to another in one go. There are some writers who simply write too much and do their reputation harm. Less is more. Iris Murdoch springs to mind. Had she written only six novels maybe her reputation wouldn’t have declined as it shows signs of doing. There’s a feeling writing for Smiley is obsessive. That even when she has nothing new to say she still writes. I certainly felt that about 13 Ways of Looking at the Novel and I felt it about this too.