Some Luck by Jane Smiley

Some Luck This is the first volume of a trilogy following the lives of the Langdon family across a period of a century. Beginning in 1920 and ending in 2020 (although Some Luck only takes us up to 1953), we will get to know several generations of the family over the course of the three novels, watching as the children grow up, get married and have children of their own, sharing their hopes and dreams, and accompanying them through some of the events which shaped the last one hundred years of American history.

At the heart of the story are Walter and Rosanna Langdon, a young married couple who, as the novel opens, are settling into life on the farm they have recently bought in Iowa. Rosanna has just given birth to their first child, Frank, and in the first few chapters, not only do we see things through the eyes of the two adults, but also through the baby’s, to whom everything in the world is new and strange. As the years go by, four more sons and daughters follow: quiet, gentle, animal-loving Joey; the sweet and angelic Lillian; Henry, who loves reading; and Claire, the youngest and her father’s favourite. Frank himself is handsome, clever and adventurous – and the contrast between his personality and Joey’s adds an interesting angle to the dynamics of the Langdon family.

The novel is carefully structured so that each chapter is devoted to one year and this keeps the story moving forward at a steady pace. However, it also gives the book an episodic feel; each time a new chapter begins and we find that we’ve jumped straight into the following year, there’s a sense that there are some gaps in the story and that things may have changed without our knowledge in a way that wouldn’t happen with a more fluent narrative. Also, as is true in all of our lives, some years are more eventful than others, which means that some chapters are more interesting than others.

Really, though, this is not a book you would choose to pick up if you were looking for a thrilling, action-packed read. Some Luck is a quiet, low-key story about ordinary people leading ordinary lives. Much of the novel is concerned with farming and all it involves: planting and harvesting crops, shearing sheep, trying to cope with summer droughts and winter snowdrifts. It reminded me in this respect of other farm-based novels I’ve read – Willa Cather’s My Antonia and, of course, Little House on the Prairie.

There are some dramas in the lives of the Langdons, but they are relatively small ones – the sort of things that could happen to any of us. Historical events are experienced mainly as the effects filter through to their remote Iowa farm – advances in farming methods, such as the replacement of horses with tractors, cause a lot of excitement and controversy – but occasionally a family member decides to leave the farm and see more of the world. Frank enlists in the army during the Second World War and is sent to North Africa, Rosanna’s sister Eloise moves to Chicago and marries a communist, and Lillian…well, I won’t say too much about what Lillian does except that it’s the one thing I found hard to believe.

Some Luck is the first book I have read by Jane Smiley. I’m aware that A Thousand Acres was her Pulitzer Prize-winning novel and might have been a better choice for me to start with, but I did still enjoy this one and am planning to continue with the trilogy soon. I have the next two books – Early Warning and Golden Age – ready to read.

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18 thoughts on “Some Luck by Jane Smiley

  1. MarinaSofia says:

    I’ve had a mixed experience with Jane Smiley’s books. I enjoyed Moo and A Thousand Acres, was bored by A Private Life. This one sounds like it would be more on the boring end of the spectrum for me, but I might give it a try.

    • Helen says:

      I did find parts of this book boring, but other parts were quite gripping, so I think it’s probably worth giving it a try. I’ll look forward to reading Moo and A Thousand Acres. 🙂

    • Helen says:

      The jumping in time was annoying sometimes as I kept feeling I’d missed something that had happened in between. I did still like the book, though, and will definitely be continuing with the next one.

  2. heavenali says:

    A Thousand Acres is the only Jane Smiley I have read – so long ago I can no longer remember it. This appeals to me as I like quiet novels – though not sure if the episodic nature of it would irritate me – sometimes it can work very well – but not always.

  3. whatmeread says:

    A Thousand Acres was one of the best books I’ve read, but I have finished the second volume of this trilogy and I’m still feeling distance from it. I think because of the amount she wants to cover and (by the second book) the sheer number of characters, you begin to feel more and more distance from the books instead of feeling more invested in it. That’s been my experience so far, although I still want to finish the trilogy. I was hoping that the second book would make me feel closer to the characters, but it had the opposite effect.

    • Helen says:

      I felt I got to know the characters quite well in this book, but maybe I’ll feel differently as there get to be more and more characters in the second and third books. When I finish this trilogy I’ll have to think about reading A Thousand Acres.

  4. Terra says:

    I haven’t read this one, but my favorite book by Jane Smiley is Horse Heaven. She captures the essence of how and what horses think, in a way that sparkles of genius.

  5. piningforthewest says:

    I was surprised to see that her books are available in Fife’s libraries so I’ll give them a go. It looks like I’ll have to be careful to read them in order.

    • Helen says:

      Some of her books do sound much more appealing than others. This is the first one I’ve read, but I will be reading more, starting with the other two in this trilogy.

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