Friday, May 04, 2012

Another read: A Thousand Acres

A Thousand Acres by Jane Smiley

Jane Smiley offers a modern interpretation of Shakespeare’s The Tragedy of King Lear in her novel, A Thousand Acres. Smiley sets her novel on an Iowa farm, opening with a powerful father divvying up his land between three daughters. The tenets of Lear are obvious immediately: the overbearing patriarch, the refusal of the youngest and most-loved daughter to play the game, the misinterpretation of actions and the whispering about intentions, the spiraling downfall of the family. But the richness of Smiley’s novel is in how she plays against her readers’ expectations about plot and perspective. Smiley uses Shakespeare’s five-act structure as a platform, not a hard-and-fast rule. Smiley’s protagonist is Ginny (Goneril, in Lear), rather than Lear himself or the sympathetic youngest daughter.

Here's the thing about this book. I'm biased, reading it, because Lear is like, the first play by Shakespeare that I ever understood, and I am pretty sure that's why it's also the first play I ever loved. But it has everything--parents and children, madness, storms... I think this affects how I feel about this book. But I also think it's a stand-alone book that works as-is. There were a few things in it that were not from the source material and they definitely added layers to the plot. As I read this I also thought about my creepy, lecherous Shakespeare professor from college, and I'm sure he would have loved the direction that some of this goes...

The thing about this novel was how feudal the entire thing felt, how tied to the land. A farm in a remote area of Iowa didn't seem to be too different from a medieval fief. The interaction between characters was limited by geography, and that gives the story a sense of drama I think it wouldn't have if it took place somewhere closer to civilization.  I liked this book.  Not comfortable to read, sometimes, because of the subject matter, and not a favorite, but not bad.

My recommendation: Maybe. I'm not sure it's up everyone's alley, but I respect what Smiley does here.

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