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24 of 27 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Rage, emptiness & cosmic irony; but with an unexpected focus
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...
Published on 22 May 2005 by Dr. Kenneth W. Douglas

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13 of 20 people found the following review helpful
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. I did not found the main characters convincing or `alive', there is no wit or irony in the book, and the story as a whole doesn't gel. But Smiley is a hard-working writer, and there is a wealth of detail about farming and farming techniques (presumably the result of...
Published on 17 Dec 2006 by a reader


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24 of 27 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Rage, emptiness & cosmic irony; but with an unexpected focus, 22 May 2005
This review is from: A Thousand Acres (Paperback)
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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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 (Albuquerque, NM, USA) - See all my reviews
(TOP 500 REVIEWER)    (REAL NAME)   
This review is from: A Thousand Acres (Paperback)
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: "...how 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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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Astonishing, 18 Nov 1999
By A Customer
This review is from: A Thousand Acres (Paperback)
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
5.0 out of 5 stars Astonishing Symmetries Sneak Subtleties into a Surprising Story, 29 Sep 2007
By 
Donald Mitchell "Jesus Loves You!" (Thanks for Providing My Reviews over 122,000 Helpful Votes Globally) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: A Thousand Acres (Paperback)
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.

I was most impressed by the subtle case being made for healthier farming methods and changed values among family farmers. Rarely does a novel make such an objective point with such power.

At times, you'll feel that the novel is more than a little over the top. But that's what makes the novel work as a tragic story. I do agree that Ms. Smiley could probably have cut back on some of the darkness, still made her point, and possibly had a masterpiece of a story. But some writers need to shake the heavens with their furies . . . and we can hardly blame them when they succeed.

Well done, Ms. Smiley!
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15 of 18 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A dark, compelling and haunting retelling of the Lear story, 14 July 2000
By A Customer
This review is from: A Thousand Acres (Paperback)
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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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Fantastic, 16 Dec 2011
This review is from: A Thousand Acres (Paperback)
This is a deeply moving account of a family who, despite appearances, have failed and suffered. Beautiful and sad, a must read.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Classic Jane Smiley !, 11 Jun 2011
This review is from: A Thousand Acres (Hardcover)
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 and believable characters she creates.
I love Jane Smileys writing and this was an absolute gem.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Ambitious re-working of King Lear, 23 Mar 2011
This review is from: A Thousand Acres (Paperback)
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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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An excellent twist on Shakespeare, 13 Sep 2008
By 
BookWorm "BookWorm" (UK) - See all my reviews
(TOP 500 REVIEWER)   
This review is from: A Thousand Acres (Paperback)
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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6 of 8 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars a novel which explores complex family relationships, 23 Jun 2000
By A Customer
This review is from: A Thousand Acres (Paperback)
To the reader from Lancashire who reviewed this a few weeks ago, it already has been made into a film, a couple of years ago.
I read this because I was always irritated by the portrayal of Goneril and Regan when I studied King Lear for A-level. The play is about an old king being cast out by his two selfish daughters, having fallen out with the youngest. They are portrayed as evil, Cordelia is good, and there is no suggestion that there is more than one side to anyone's character except King Lear.
The novel is written from the viewpoint of one of the farmer's older daughters. The family is an American farming family - the older daughters have both married farmers themselves, while the youngest goes off to the city to be a lawyer.
The narrative is all about choices or lack of them, and expectations of women in an insular society.
Compelling and absorbing but does take some getting into.
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A Thousand Acres
A Thousand Acres by Jane Smiley (Paperback - 4 May 2004)
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