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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. All three sisters are married; two farm the land with their husbands, while Caroline is a lawyer off in Des Moines, with no interest in farming. Ginny has yet to bear a child; Rose has two. And then there are the neighbors. It is the waning days of the Carter Administration, and Jess Clark, who avoided Vietnam by deserting to Canada, comes home to a nominally let-bygones-be-bygones welcome from his conservative father, Harold. Naturally the banker is not portrayed in a very favorable light, having issues with "toxins" in his body.

There are real toxins however, routinely used in farming, with deleterious impacts of the principal characters, which should literally be food for thought for all of us. This novel has often been referred to as a "King Lear" in the American plains, since the main dynamic involves a very headstrong man and his three daughters. Smiley has a real knack for maintaining a very high level of dramatic tension throughout the novel. There are the interludes in which she discusses the nature of the land, of farming, the finances, the nature of the farm "community," childhood joys and pleasures, and then she "slams" you with a major plot development in a sentence or two. Little joy or solace is provided by the natural setting and the very real work of farming; instead Smiley reveals deep-rooted antipathies and hatreds among the principal characters, with numerous grievances carefully held and cultivated, awaiting the proper time for revenge. Early on, on page 9, Smiley establishes that theme with: " generations of silence could flow from a single choice." And towards the end, she sums up how those grievances can be glossed over when required, due to outside threats, when she says: .... "the marvelous engine of appearances had started up..." (p.293). The author added a brilliant touch of the main characters playing the board game, "Monopoly," which reflected the real life machinations in accumulating the 1000-acre farm.

Some love, some sex, much anxiety, and worse, rooted in the nexus of economics and family relationships. A brilliant 6-star essential American novel.
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TOP 100 REVIEWERon 13 September 2008
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 few chapters I was hooked. The story not only transplants the events of the famous play into 1970s Iowa, but also takes a very different angle to the generally accepted view of Lear as victim, Goneril and Reagan as scheming villainesses.

Narrated by Ginny, the eldest daughter and equivalent of the play's unsympathetic character Goneril, 'A Thousand Acres' makes the behaviour of the older girls seem more reasonable and less selfish, and calls into question the motivations and behaviour of their father Larry. Giving the narration to Ginny was a clever move, as it allows us to sympathise more with the sisters, though at the same time it isn't necessarily excusing all of their actions.

Anyone who has read, watched or knows of the play will know that all of this doesn't end happily. The book is extremely readable and exquistely well paced, drawing the reader in bit by bit, taking the storyline from mundane normality of farm life into a tragedic battle in which the characters themselves seem slightly bemused to find themselves. It's utterly believable throughout and packs an emotional punch.

Whilst it does follow most aspects of King Lear, cleverly adapting them to suit the modern setting, there are also some departures. This adds to the interest if you are familiar with the play, as you're always looking to see when comparison situations will come up or if things will differ from the original.

Despite never having visited America, I felt like I knew not just the scenary of the setting but the mindset of the locals, the politics of it, even though the community of the novel is very different from anything I have ever lived in. Smiley's prose integrates the reader effortlessly in the world of the characters.

I would highly recommend this book, it is original, intriguing, well written and one of the best things I have read all year.
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on 23 March 2011
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. If you're familiar with Shakespeare, this book will illuminate the original's complexities but it's a powerful stand-alone read that will suck you into one family's unique tragedy.
The original setting is transposed to a 1970/80s mid-Western farming community where Larry Cook decides to transfer his 1000 acre farm to his three motherless daughters: Ginny, Rose and Caroline. The older two, who still live and work on the farm, accept but the youngest, Caroline, has misgivings. Told from the point of view of the eldest daughter, Ginny, the lives of the Cook family slowly begin to unravel as secrets from the past emerge and the 'certainties' they live by are slowly demolished.
Where Smiley's version differs from the original Lear story is that, rather than casting Ginny and Rose as purely evil, she tries to get to grips with what has destroyed the daughters' relationship with their father. Although far from blameless in the developing tragedy, Ginny is forced to try to confront the true nature of her father but any understanding comes too late as all characters are propelled towards their inevitable fates.
An excellent novel to read if you're studying King Lear but also a great example of an author writing at the peak of her creative powers who succeeds in producing an original and thought-provoking novel.
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on 22 May 2005
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. However, Larry himself, aided and abetted by his wily clown of a neighbour Harold Clark, starts to behave increasingly oddly, stirring up bad feeling in the neighbourhood against Ginny and Rose. When Harold's charismatic younger son Jess returns from Canada, and Caroline pushes her father into a lawsuit to try to retrieve his farm, the stage is clearly set for tragedy - and tragedy is what we get.
Smiley's aim here is primarily to give a voice to the sort of people who are never usually allowed the luxury of centre-stage soliloquies to explain their actions and motives: in particular, there is a subtle but definite post-feminist slant to her tale. Downtrodden and embittered Ginny is the perfect choice as narrator: Smiley gives her a voice of uncommon poetry, perhaps as some sort of compensation for her irredeemably blighted life. The fierce and egotistical Rose is equally finely done, and neither Ginny nor Rose ever really lose the reader's sympathy even as their actions become more and more extreme. On the other hand, the melodramatic ranting of the disinherited Larry Cook comes to seem more and more irrelevant, and unlike Shakespeare's Lear, Smiley never allows Larry to become a sympathetic character. He may be a monster who has lost his poison, but he remains a monster. Although virtually everyone in the tale ends up empty-handed at the end, and there is no public accounting for past crimes, there is a feeling that in some way, justice has been done. As one of the older sisters sums it up near the end of the book: "All I have is the knowledge that I saw! That I saw without being afraid and without turning away, and that I didn't forgive the unforgivable. Forgiveness is a reflex for when you can't stand what you know. I resisted that reflex. That's my sole, solitary, lonely accomplishment."
Although this is a pretty dark read, it's a surprisingly exhilarating one too. Partly, this is the exhilaration in watching something getting smashed up that richly deserves to be smashed. But there is a lot more to it than that: Smiley creates characters of rare emotional complexity, and her use of language and metaphor is always beautiful. At the start of the book, Ginny muses over the fact that Larry's farm consists mainly of reclaimed marshland: there is a lost sea lurking just beneath the surface of the prairie. When Smiley strips back the ostensibly ordered lives of her farming family to show us the murky depths lurking there, it ultimately feels like a liberating experience.
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on 22 July 1997
This book paralells Shakespeare's work almost perfectly. The two works should be read together to get the most enjoyment out of each. Smiley's treatment of King Lear is well-handled and beautifully done. Smiley helps the reader understand King Lear by bringing the ancient conflict into today's terms by placing the story in Iowa, a setting the reader well understands. The literary symbolism in Acres is well done. For example, Larry Cook, the aging father playing the part of King Lear, leaves his brand-new wood furniture to be ruined in the driveway. This symbolizes Larry's own dementia, as seen from his daughter Ginny's eyes. The reader will enjoy the skillful use of language in Smiley's work and the dedication to the original story. However, I had to rate the book an eight because it does get heavy and cumbersome, particularly towards the end. While still well-written, it gets very depressing and heavy-handed. It is still faithful to Lear, but gets slow. Overall, Lear and Acres ought to read as companions for a good look at some wonderful writing on both the authors' parts.
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on 18 November 1999
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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on 16 October 2015
I'm quite suspicious of "award winning novels" because that can mean they are grim and inaccessible. The idea of reading some recent ManBooker prizewinners gives me the shudders. 1000 acres is certainly grim reading but if you are reading a modern re-telling of King Lear you wouldn't expect a barrel of laughs. Jane Smiley does a brilliant job of translating it to the mid-west and in the process sheds an interesting life on the Shakespearean source material. Her writing is tough but not overwrought and the story has the hideous inevitability of a Greek tragedy. I couldn't put it down - but I won't be re-reading it any time soon.
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This novel is set in the farming communities of the American prairies and is a retelling of "King Lear". Larry Cook decides to split his inheritance between his three daughters but casts aside the one who appears not to love him. Larry's arrogance and his tainted gift begins to destroy his family - if you have read Shakespeare's original then you will know what is coming but it really isn't necessary to have read the original to enjoy this, although when you do know the source material you can really appreciate what the author has done to update and transfer the story.

The story is told through the eyes of Ginny, one of the three sisters, and with her we watch Larry's kingdom decline and fail as well as his mental health. The author does this really well and the feeling that it is all inevitable remains with us throughout the story. The narrative doesn't follow the original slavishly but the key moments are there and they are seamlessly woven into the story so that, even though I was looking out for them, I was still surprised when they occurred and then delighted with how the author had used them.

This is a tragedy. It is a story of power misused, mental health problems, sibling rivalry and jealousy. It is a beautifully written novel and the narrator,Ginny, is a sympathetic character even when she is doing things which don't seem very sympathetic. It is full of tension and leads remorselessly to the end. It is clever and very emotional. I was riveted by this story despite its harrowing nature because of the quality of the writing.
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on 16 December 2014
A reworking of King Lear, this is a well-written modern day take on the Shakespearian play. It is interesting because the events which take place are seen through the eyes of one of the daughters. The father figure is a very strong uncompromising character who treats his daughters as possessions, there to do his bidding. Only the youngest daughter has escaped from the stiflingly rigid way of life in this farming community where everyone knows everyone else's business. The strong family structure disintegrates as events unfold. A really good read.
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on 14 July 2000
A modern setting for the story of Lea in the mid-West of America, with a twist in the plot which is gradually revealed. As the power of the father and of the family declines, eldest daughter Ginny tells her tragic story. Jane Smiley creates with enormous skill the suffocating atmosphere of a family in which relationships are riven with dark secrets and unfulfilled dreams. The mundane everyday details of farm life lend even more weight to the tragedy of the protagonists, where what is not said becomes gradually more sinister than what is. A wonderful, brooding tragedy which gives more ambiguity to the characters of Lear.
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