Customer Review

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The "real" Bridges of Madison Country..., 29 April 2013
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: " 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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Showing 1-1 of 1 posts in this discussion
Initial post: 31 May 2013 18:11:02 BDT
Skaty Katie says:
Brilliant review. Having read King Lear for my A level English Literature a good 20 years ago now, I recognised the story but liked the more sympathetic and realistic portrayal of Ginny and Rose - who were not evil as in Shakespeare's originals.
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