A Thousand Acres by Jane Smiley

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A successful Iowa farmer decides to divide his farm between his three daughters. When the youngest objects, she is cut out of his will. This sets off a chain of events that brings dark truths to light and explodes long-suppressed emotions.

An ambitious reimagining of Shakespeare’s King Learcast upon a typical American community in the late twentieth century, A Thousand Acres takes on themes of truth, justice, love, and pride, and reveals the beautiful yet treacherous topography of humanity.

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Rating: 1 out of 5.

A Thousand Acres by Jane Smiley

My rating: 1 of 5 stars

Not the book for me. Others may like certain elements, but I did not feel even the best parts were as sustainable for me. Will be an interesting one to discuss for book club.

I read this one for SunBeamsJess Book Club.

The Story
I felt this to be a really tiresome read.

It greatly missed the community and family unit by overwrought details, sprinklings of much danger and tragedy, to the point it felt contrived and a veneer to what could be both a mad and loving story.

Places feminist presuppositions and parallels that just weren’t there. I didn’t see the resemblance from what I recall from Shakespeare’s King Lear. Though I didn’t remember much about it in script detail, but still I didn’t see all the connections or as whole in isolation piece.

This book exemplifies much my dislike for certain movie retellings and adaptations. I’d liken it to tragic movie retellings of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas. Where originality, cute, precious, laughable, bonding, memory creating, fun, humanistic qualities, tension, and lessons learned turns into dark, obnoxious, and oddly wild.

Read like a lot of source material. Qualifying notations at times. Felt like I was reading about someone passionately dispassionate about life rather than immersed in any part of it.

Focused drama on peculiar family affairs. Some of it out of generational trauma. Numerically and complex tragedies I could understand in reading characters as they had developed, but dynamic and impact was off. Complexity of family dynamics and legalities were overly detailed, melodramatic, and supplanted, making them feel as if they were cancelling each other out. This resulted in not much to rectify within situations as a reader because there was no fulcrum, point of pivot, no moral compass to reign in any of the character decision or weighing of certain consequences out. Even unto darkness and death.

Learning too much backstory at points the story was moving much onward. Parts were muddy, from past, to present, to future. It’s all very bleak. Some in their right to be absolutely bleak. But were without arch of explanation or support for fear and despair or even range of hope in the matter, which were the more puzzling parts of the novel. Criminalizing what was seen as moral principle when looking at what may be interdependent relationally. Not taking account for other offenses otherwise at the same time.

The farming. Let’s talk about daily farming practice, business, and industry. The aspects were all lovely in its presence, but was not integrated into the story well. As a result, felt like it was written by somebody who thinks the origin of food is strictly from the grocery store. Who has barely touched soil with bare hands. Then dumping of source material. Or “Here’s what I know…” approach. Made for a very superficial telling of farming and ranching. Mixing methods, mixed markets, mixed seasons, mixed types of cattle, and not much spoken to actual dedication, responsibilities, and community needed when raising livestock. Also assigned trivial tone to ranching, as well as to some small gardening aspects and large scale farming of vegetables. This book didn’t know what it wanted to be or what type of plot of land to pass down or to sell.

Then it had these tidbits. Slips of information that felt like little random National Geographic factoids within scene descriptions and Women’s Day magazine advice for how to save money by saving money, miracle cure tell how for your freezer to pop ice cubes out of an ice tray, how the neighbor’s weekend after hours noise ordinance BBQ gathering ruined a couple’s 50-year marriage, and how to make amends by lying your way out of a continually cheating situation.

A bit distanced from certain life experiences and misunderstood humanistic desires for belonging and sustainability throughout.

The Writing
Sometimes it was absolutely stellar though. Especially written to the extent in cast of characters. A very strong point to Smiley’s full capture of what might be going on to guide through the thoughts and actions of each character.

However, a little goes a long way, and too much was too much. Therefore anchoring points and substance was lost.

Too much commentary on everything happening. Commentary and rationale in the dialogue, even as they speak. This over-emphasis and over-explanatory approach to what is both overly simplified and overly complicated in both presentation and story. Which is strange altogether. Reminded me of these greeting cards I’ve seen. You open them up, a nice message, then it will say something re-emphasized inside like “Happy Birthday (because it’s your birthday)!”

So then the voice felt less authentic, both in character and rationale. In character, emotions were there occasionally, but misplaced and uneven in the main story and subplots. It was hard to judge their characters consistently because they were so scrambly to start.

Tone
Bitter. Angry. Vengeful.

Constant competition against men is how it feels like on forceful evil display, but underlying it’s really about women competing against each other in unwarranted, less supported storyline of what would be strong sisterhood and farmwife founding of community, but even more deeply so, is really the territory wars of the narrator, the main character to herself. Though no one was redeemable at any point.

I suppose this line was an attempt to tell a certain narrative “On the other hand, perhaps she hadn’t mistaken anything at all, and had simply spoken as a woman rather than as a daughter. That was something, I realized in a flash, that Rose and I were pretty careful never to do.” But falls short in principle. Mostly because it doesn’t celebrate what could be special, treasured, unique, unifying, powerful, informed, and thoughtful. No, instead tears it all down. Much like the saying, throwing the baby out with the bathwater and there’s not dimension given to characters having otherwise conflicting thought. Just ends up ultimately as closed case and abrupt dismissal.

It doesn’t go from peak to peak, or peak to low, more like low to low to low all around, staying low, driving tragedy deeper and deeper, to places that life itself doesn’t go naturally that I could clearly follow. At least not in the portrayal and framing we were given. Takes the charm out of what is capturing, what is humanistic, what is realistic, relatable, beautiful, redeeming, honorable, and virtuous. And it’s not just originating from main character as told by POV, but somewhat overzealousness in dialogue and action of side characters both in intent and their undertakings in dark subplot.

Characters
I appreciated some of the characterization, was well done at introduction and start. But they all were rather empty as we go along. There was no investment in each other. Everyone’s a bit wishy-washy and detached. Inside and outside the family. There’s no mediator. No grounding effort.

Destructive toward one another. Full on sabotage. Self-destructive in their own way. Villainous. All of them. Exception were the nieces… I think? Maybe? I don’t know. But it’s a look into the worst and twisted circumstances of historical events and family tragedies. No one cares about anyone else’s feelings. Psychopathy really. Everyone. And as wicked as they come.

Emotionally stunted. Neither with daily livelihood or business standard or legacy of their lives, not the farm. Which could make an excellent story, which I had hoped for, but didn’t dissect what is spacial emotionally versus personality. Didn’t make any sense to me. No one is loved. No one feels love. No one gives love. It’s all very transactional and less relational so it was difficult to feel supportive toward anyone in the book. Which unfortunately made the reading experience for me more of an unsatisfying chore. Even took the joy and satisfaction out of relationships, community, hobbies, meals and caretaking, ranching and farming aspects. Nothing was seen to provide any stability, solace, or nourishment.

The main character Ginny comes into the scenes unknowingly known. Where her observations and problem-solving comes from a place of knowing too much and commentary that is too much. Which actually propelled the story less and from a standpoint of plot reveal that felt like “Ok, here’s how I see it…” which didn’t connect me to her character.

To care or not to care about the farm, that was my initial and ending question. I still don’t have any answers to offer after finishing the book.

Unfortunately, it was just too much at any one point for me to understand the solidifying premise or direction of it.

I’d be curious to read more.

View all my reviews

<span class="uppercase">Hello, I'm Erica </span>
Hello, I’m Erica

Recipe developer, book reviewer, and artist. Expect delicious recipes both traditional and new, book reviews of all sorts of genres, a variety of creative expression, life musings, and much more!

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