A Thousand Acres by Jane Smiley

A Thousand AcresWinner of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1992, ‘A Thousand Acres’ by Jane Smiley is essentially the plot of the Shakespeare play ‘King Lear’ set on a farm in Iowa in the 1980s.  Approaching old age, Larry Cook decides to hand over ownership of his 1000 acre farm in Zebulon County to his three daughters, Ginny, Rose and Caroline.  Caroline, the youngest, objects and is cut out of the will and before long, many other family secrets are revealed.  Given the ‘King Lear’ link, I don’t think I will be giving away a great deal by saying that ‘A Thousand Acres’ ends in tragedy.  

I knew the basic plot and general themes of ‘King Lear’ before I read ‘A Thousand Acres’.  But for those who are even less familiar with it than I am, I really wouldn’t say it’s essential to have an in-depth knowledge of the play in order to enjoy the book.  Saying that, I also don’t really know ‘King Lear’ well enough to know how many subtle references there are to it in ‘A Thousand Acres’ so on that level, I may not have appreciated it.  Either way, it doesn’t really matter.

‘A Thousand Acres’ is obviously not particularly uplifting but it also wasn’t as dark and depressing as I thought it would be either.  I think it was mostly just slow and it definitely took me a while to get into it.  The premise is certainly ambitious and the characters are compelling and nuanced, which is just as well as there isn’t a great deal that actually happens in the story.  Smiley has quite a long-winded way of writing and I felt that the plot really did drag at times.  However, I thought that having the story told from Ginny’s point of view was generally very effective.  Also, Smiley is very skilled at building complex emotional layers in the narrative and her descriptions of the landscape are very vivid.  Overall, this is an original take on a famous play but I was quite glad when I finally finished it.

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6 Comments

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6 responses to “A Thousand Acres by Jane Smiley

  1. When I read this books, some years ago, I didn’t know anything about King Lear (I still don’t) but I enjoyed reading it. Still, it’s not my favorite of Jane Smiley’s books.

    I remember liking the setting but wasn’t there an awful mother? I think she spoiled it a little for me.

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  2. I, too, read it a while ago. I remember liking it, but have never found another Smiley book that I’ve liked. Jason Robards is stunning in the movie adaptation.

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  3. Yeah, I started A Thousand Acres a while ago and then it just sort of got lost on my nightstand… I didn’t realize it was based off King Lear though. Maybe now that I’ve read the play I might find it more compelling! Thanks for the post.

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  4. Sometimes it’s interesting to read a novel that has a more classic work as its shadow (after all, Ulysses is the best novel ever written) but more often I feel the practice smacks of lack of imagination or at least a weakness in the writer’s approach to fiction which requires the crutch of something that has gone before and already been successful.

    I read A Thousand Acres several years back and although I wasn’t wowed, it was a decent read. Interestingly, despited having a decent Shakespearean background and a good knowledge of King Lear, the parallels in Smiley’s book never really interfered with my reading and not once did feel the need to reference the play. I find this true of Ulysses too: yes, I know all about Odysseus yet when I read Joyce I never feel the need to reference Homer.

    But the question is, was Smiley trying to improve on Shakespeare or was she using Shakespeare to make her novel seem more than it is? Although I tried another Smiley novel, I just do not feel the need to read more of her fiction.

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  5. Note that Christopher Moore’s Fool is also a retelling of King Lear but in this case it’s more Black Adder meets Shakespeare.

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  6. A Thousand Acres sounds intriguing. Thanks!.

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