Winner 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.