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A Thousand Acres [Paperback]

Jane Smiley
3.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (27 customer reviews)
RRP: 8.99
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Book Description

4 May 2004

The Pulitzer Prize-winning, bestselling novel from one of America’s greatest contemporary writers.

Larry Cook’s farm is the largest in Zebulon County, Iowa, and a tribute to his hard work and single-mindedness. Proud and possessive, his sudden decision to retire and hand over the farm to his three daughters, is disarmingly uncharacteristic.

Ginny and Rose, the two eldest, are startled yet eager to accept, but Caroline, the youngest daughter, has misgivings. Immediately, her father cuts her out.

In A Thousand Acres, Jane Smiley transposes the King Lear story to the modern day, and in so doing at once illuminates Shakespeare’s original and subtly transforms it. This astonishing novel won both of America’s highest literary awards, the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and the National Book Critics’ Circle Award.

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Product details

  • Paperback: 400 pages
  • Publisher: Harper Perennial; New ed edition (4 May 2004)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0006544827
  • ISBN-13: 978-0006544821
  • Product Dimensions: 13 x 19.7 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 3.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (27 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 38,716 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Amazon Review

Ageing Larry Cook announces his intention to turn over his 1,000-acre farm--one of the largest in Zebulon County, Iowa--to his three daughters, Caroline, Ginny and Rose. A man of harsh sensibilities, he carves Caroline out of the deal because she has the nerve to be less than enthusiastic about her father's generosity. While Larry Cook deteriorates into a pathetic drunk, his daughters are left to cope with the often grim realities of life on a family farm--from battering husbands to cut-throat lenders. In this winner of the US 1991 National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction, Smiley captures the essence of such a life with stark, painful detail. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.


‘A Thousand Acres is a strong, gnarled shocker of a novel… superb. Its success is down to Smiley’s ambitious gusto, her intuitive handling of the relationship between character and landscape, and her willingness to haul genuine moral freight across the panorama she has so expertly painted.’ Sunday Times

‘Epic fiction of the very highest order, naturalistic , penetrating and wholly absorbing.’ Literary Review

‘Superlative, extraordinary, amazing. A Thousand Acres is a great American tragedy about the failure of a family’s land and the failure of its love. There may have been better novels than A Thousand Acres, but I fear I didn’t read them – a haunting inquisition into the decline and fall of a family.’ Independent

‘A studied, ingenious variation on the brutal clashing of sexes and generations in King Lear. Its style is relaxed, conversational, unhurried; the novel flows gently onwards like a broad river. In its solidity and poise, A Thousand Acres is a book that will outlast this year’s rainy season.’ Vogue
‘Powerful, poignant, intimate and involving.’ New York Times

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
24 of 27 people found the following review helpful
Jane Smiley's darkly awesome Pulitzer Prizewinner has lost none of its impact fourteen years on from its initial publication in 1991. Her re-telling of the King Lear story has all the rage, emptiness and cosmic irony of the Shakespearean original, but it is Smiley's crucial change of focus that makes the book such an overwhelming experience. For the tragedy here is not that of Lear himself, the father who reluctantly relinquishes his power; but rather belongs to the three daughters who suddenly find themselves dealing with the fall-out of years of domestic tyranny and abuse. The Goneril and Regan figures, the two eldest daughters who cast their father out into the storm and collude in depriving their younger sister of her rightful inheritance, are (kind of) the Good Guys here. Smiley has a long, cold look at the original King Lear story, and tells us that if Goneril and Regan saw fit to treat their father and their sister in this way, well, maybe they had their reasons. And terrible reasons they must have been.
The book is narrated by Ginny, eldest daughter of successful farmer Larry Cook, who owns one of the largest farms in his county, the regal Thousand Acres of the title. Ostensibly motivated by an urge to cheat the government out of death duties on his farm, he suddenly and unexpectedly offers each of his three daughters a third share in the farm. His youngest daughter Caroline, wary of his true motivation and of the darker undercurrents in the family dynamic, isn't keen on the idea and promptly gets cut out completely: Larry divides the farm between the two older girls Ginny & Rose. They are to farm the land with their husbands' help.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The "real" Bridges of Madison Country... 29 April 2013
By John P. Jones III TOP 500 REVIEWER
Jane Smiley won the Pulitzer Prize in 1992 for this work. Both her novel and The Bridges Of Madison County are set in rural Iowa, and involve, in part, the love affairs of farmer's wives. A quick check of the reviews posted on Amazon indicate twice as many reviews for "Bridges," as this novel, which may be a rough indicator of the actual readership of each. I've read both, and now have reviewed both. "Bridges" is a schmaltzy, idealized fantasy of a love affair, and its lifetime impact. "A Thousand Acres" is brutally realistic, many degrees more complex, and works on several different dimensions.

The novel is set in the fictional county of Zebulon, not that far from the real town of Mason City, in northern Iowa, about half way between Des Moines, and the Twin Cities, in Minnesota. The story is told from the viewpoint of Ginny, the eldest of three sisters. It was her great grandparents, on her mother's side, who came from England in the 1890's, purchased some swampy land from afar, drained it, and found themselves in possession of some of the most fertile farmland in the world. Over the next three generations, through hard work, some luck and shrewd purchases, the farm was expanded to, as the title indicated, a 1000 acres, a fitting patrimony for any parent to leave to his children.

Smiley is a master story teller. She beautiful develops 10-15 characters. She smoothly backs and fills across time. There is the narrator, Ginny, now 36, and her relationship with her two sisters, Caroline and Rose. Then there is their mother, who died too young, and their father, who is attempting to "let go" of the farm to the next generation, with disastrous consequences.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Astonishing 18 Nov 1999
By A Customer
This is a provocative reworking of the King Lear myth set in the rural America of the latter half of the 20th century. The book draws you in fully to the consciousness of its narrator, Ginny, and will not let go, even after it ends.
A deep understanding of both family and the "madness" of womanhood inform this novel; it deserved the Pulitzer it won earlier this decade.
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7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
Most modern novels fail to surprise me. They telegraph where they are going in such obvious ways that I often feel I could write the next chapters and the ending before I read them. Jane Smiley in A Thousand Acres also telegraphs a lot . . . but underneath those obvious road signs, she's built a more powerful message for those who care to read between the lines. Although most people don't want to read a book as long and as dark as this one, it's well worth your while. The character and plot developments display an amazing set of symmetries that are works of genius.

Those who will love this book the most are people who know farm life in the American Middle West well. Having had a grandfather, father and several uncles who were farmers in Illinois raising lots of corn and hogs, I was first impressed by how well Ms. Smiley captured the attitudes, experiences, psychology and perspectives of the American family farmer during the 1930s through the 1980s. I felt like I was reading the history of my own family for about the first third of the book.

Then, she powerfully shifts the ground as the patriarch of the family, Larry Cook, decides to cede control over the family farm to avoid estate taxes. From there, a superficial reading will see this as a modern version of King Lear. I think that obvious parallel is not an accurate view of the book. Instead, this book takes on the qualities of a Greek tragedy as the characters move inexorably towards their preordained fates. What's the source of the tragedy? It's the pride of the American family farmer who lusts for more land and production.

In fact, this book could have been titled "Life Drains Away" as the forces set into action by the characters create an ironic threat to some of the same characters.
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars Remarkable and insightfull writing
Read as a book club choice. Very readable about a family dominated by the father whose lives are bound to the land but where everything is built on lies and secrets. Read more
Published 3 months ago by ginny
4.0 out of 5 stars Interesting take on King Lear
I enjoyed this book but it's not a 5 star read for me as I felt characters and situations were rather too black and white. Read more
Published 7 months ago by Barnes On Tour
2.0 out of 5 stars Book Purchase
When the book arrived it was an older edition with a different cover than the one shown on amazon and the pages a bit yellowed.
Published 11 months ago by Stephanie Goj
3.0 out of 5 stars ...
it took a few chapters for me to get into this novel, but once it picked up it was alright. i only brought it because someone told me i could use it to comare to king lear
Published 12 months ago by jacqueline
4.0 out of 5 stars Fantastic
This is a deeply moving account of a family who, despite appearances, have failed and suffered. Beautiful and sad, a must read.
Published on 16 Dec 2011 by S M
5.0 out of 5 stars Classic Jane Smiley !
It took a little while to get into but then I just couldn't put this book down! The feeling of place, the claustrophobia that can be felt even on a 1,000 acre farm, and the real... Read more
Published on 11 Jun 2011 by Messymare
4.0 out of 5 stars Ambitious re-working of King Lear
Published in 1991 and deserved winner of the Pulitzer prize, Smiley's re-telling of King Lear is up there with the best of modern literary fiction. Read more
Published on 23 Mar 2011 by Reddy
5.0 out of 5 stars An excellent twist on Shakespeare
Sometimes prize winners disappoint, but not in this case. I approached the book with some scepticism having read that it was based on Shakespeare's 'King Lear' but after the first... Read more
Published on 13 Sep 2008 by BookWorm
2.0 out of 5 stars Old-fashioned 70's Feminist Misandry
There is plenty to admire in this book, which is why awarding it only one star wouldn't have felt right. Read more
Published on 17 Dec 2006 by a reader
5.0 out of 5 stars Astonishing Symmetries Sneak Subtleties into a Surprising Story
Most modern novels fail to surprise me. They telegraph where they are going in such obvious ways that I often feel I could write the next chapters and the ending before I read... Read more
Published on 5 Nov 2006 by Donald Mitchell
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