Early Warning

By Jane Smiley

(Knopf Doubleday, $26.95, 496 pages)

Who is this author?

Jane Smiley, who lives in California, won a Pulitzer Prize for fiction for her novel A Thousand Acres, a modern retelling of King Lear set in Iowa farm country. She went on to write other novels: Moo (a biting satire of life at an agricultural college), Horse Heaven, Good Faith, Private Life and many more, as well as five nonfiction books and a series for young adults. Her honors include membership in the American Academy of Arts and Letters and a PEN USA Lifetime Achievement Award for Literature.

What is this book about?

A simple plot idea, but one that is difficult to maintain: Smiley’s Early Warning is the second novel in  a planned trilogy about the life of one farming family in Iowa and beyond, over the past 100 years, beginning in 1920 and told in the form in one chapter per year. Rosanna and Walter Langdon, their five children and their offspring are the microcosm; the events from the Great Depression through World War II and its Cold War aftermath, Vietnam and on is the macrocosm: both are delineated with care. This book begins in 1953 with a funeral and goes on to chronicle other deaths, births, breakdowns, successes: in short, life as it goes on. The younger family members, except for stalwart farmer Joe, have left the farm and/or Iowa and are swept up in personal and national change. Elder son Frank, he of the Mad Men ways and Midas touch in business, continues to find ways to prosper while losing his soul; thoughtful Arthur risks his sanity in working for the CIA; motherly Lillian makes the mistake of trusting her family doctor; and an unexpected new member of the family is revealed. Those who were captivated by Some Luck will want to continue following the Langdons into their future, which is ours as well.

Why you’ll like it:

Here’s what I wrote in December about Some Luck: “Smiley is an accomplished writer, and here she has set herself a difficult task: tell the story of one family while also telling the story of America during one of its most frightening yet fulfilling periods of history. And do so in a way that readers, having finished this book, will look forward eagerly to two more that will complete the story. Smiley has the skills to carry this off and no lack of the imagination that a literary feat of this nature demands. She can be touching yet funny, insightful and provocative. Some Luck and its planned sequels are truly a three-course readers’ feast.” That remains true, and I would add: Smiley maintains her pace and power in Early Warning, book two of this ambitious trilogy, in which characters grow more “modern” and situations more familiar. Readers who have invested their time and in books one and two will surely want to follow the Langdons into the final volume

What others are saying:

Publishers Weekly says: “Smiley has a big cast to wrangle in the second volume of the Last Hundred Years trilogy, which began with 2014’s Some Luck, and she starts this entry at the funeral of Walter, the Iowa farmer and paterfamilias of volume one. While the Langdons, scattered across New York, Chicago, and California, reunite, readers get a refresher on the family relationships. Covering 1953 to 1986 at a clip of one year per chapter, the focus here is the Cold War and its fallout. This material occasionally feels like the greatest hits of the post-WWII era, with Langdons brushing up against a Kennedy assassination, Jonestown, and Vietnam. And since the post-war baby boom means cousins by the dozens, the cast of characters isn’t as vivid and particular as it was in the knock-out first volume. Still, Smiley keeps you reading; as a writer she is less concerned about individual characters, but still as deft as ever at conveying the ways in which a family develops: some stories carrying on, while others fall away. This isn’t a series you can start in the middle, so pick up Some Luck, ride out the Depression and WWII with Walter, Rosanna, and Frank, then come back to the atom-and-adultery-haunted volume two.

Library Journal says: “. . . this second work in the trilogy follows the complicated Langdon siblings after the death of patriarch Walter in 1955. Eldest son Frank is unhappily married to alcoholic Andy, who frets about her lack of maternal instinct. While Joe lingers on the Iowa farm with homely wife Lois, wondering what could have been, Lillian settles down with secretive Arthur, Claire hastily marries an older Paul, and everyone wonders why affable Henry is still a bachelor. Pulitzer Prize-winning Smiley . . . paints pictures with her words, describing the intricacies of each character, even the unlikable, as the family steadily grows owing to marriages and births. As in Some Luck, each chapter here represents one year, with the Langdons reflecting on events of the 1960s and 1970s and warmhearted Lillian becoming the matriarch, uniting the disparate cousins. Although the narrative can be predictable at times, Smiley’s beautifully descriptive writing compensates. VERDICT Those new to this multigenerational saga should start with Some Luck. Those already familiar will be eager to continue with the inevitable conflicts among cousins and the appearance of an unexpected family member. . . . While Smiley’s latest offering is not as captivating as the first installment, readers interested in a story well told will be satisfied.”

Says Kirkus Reviews: “Opening with the 1953 funeral of patriarch Walter, Smiley follows the Langdon family introduced in Some Luck through its second and third generations. Only steady second son Joe stayed home on the Iowa farm; he watches the land soar in value during the 1970s, though the farmer fatalism he inherited from Walter is justified when crop prices tank in the ’80s. Brilliant, predatory older brother Frank rises through the Manhattan business world while wife Andy raises their kids on automatic pilot, devoting her principal energies to psychoanalysis and worrying about nuclear war. Lillian has the happiest marriage among the siblings, though husband Arthur’s employment at the CIA provokes several crises of conscience. Observing them all in her customary critical spirit, widowed Rosanna cautiously expands her horizons, learning to drive and paying a visit to youngest son Henry, a gay academic, in Chicago. His sister Claire finally dumps her husband in 1979, after years of never talking back.  . . . Smiley’s narrative web snares almost every major postwar social change, and inevitably there are some generic touches: One member of the third generation is killed in Vietnam, another gets involved with Jim Jones’ Peoples Temple. Such boilerplate is generally redeemed with nicely specific details, as when Andy imagines the impending nuclear apocalypse to be something like the Ragnarök envisioned by her Norse forebears. Each of the large cast of characters has sharply individualized traits, and though we’re seldom emotionally wrapped up in their experiences—Smiley has never been the warmest of writers—they are unfailingly interesting. The surprise 1986 appearance of a hitherto unsuspected relative prompts a semiconfrontation between Arthur and resentful daughter Debbie that reminds us life and love are never perfect—they simply are. Sags a bit, as trilogy middle sections often do, but strong storytelling and a judicious number of loose ends will keep most readers looking forward to the promised third volume.”

“Wondrous . . . Early Warning is a good reminder that the big, juicy novel is ascendant again . . . Smiley enriches the great-events model of American history with her equal attention to cultural history, and she makes the lives of obscure women, men and children as important as the lives of Great Men . . . Like the 19th-century novels she invokes, her stories revel in coincidences, repetitions, revelations and elaborations of events and themes. The surprises are irresistible. She plucks from a crowded gathering of relatives and, one by one, develops lives that are rich, mysterious and constantly changing . . . The Midwestern intonations of Early Warning shift subtly as Smiley narrates the Langdons’ moves to the East and West coasts, their educations, their travels to Europe, their rapid ascension into wealth and the inclusion of other ethnicities and sexual preferences into their midst. As their world expands, the events becomes mesmerizing, the reading compulsive and the direct language a guard against sentimentality,” says The Washington Post.

When is it available?

Warning: Get to the Downtown Hartford Public Library early to borrow a copy of this book.

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