Publisher: Harper Perennial
Length: 416 pages
About: Modern version of King Lear
Style: 1st person
Where: US (Iowa)
The novel is a contemporary retelling of Shakespeare's King Lear and is set on a thousand acre (four hundred hectares) farm in Iowa that is owned by a family of a father and his three daughters.
It is told through the point of view of the oldest daughter, Ginny. Larry Cook is an aging farmer who decides to incorporate his farm, handing complete and joint ownership to his three daughters,
Ginny, Rose, and Caroline. When the youngest daughter objects, she is removed from the agreement. This sets off a chain of events that brings dark truths to light and explodes long-suppressed
emotions, as the story eventually reveals the long-term sexual abuse of the two eldest daughters that was committed by their father.
The plot also focuses on Ginny's troubled marriage, her difficulties in bearing a child and her relationship with her family.
It was 1951 and I was eight when I saw the farm and the future in this way. That was the year my father bought his first car, a Buick sedan with prickly gray velvet seats, so rounded and slick
that it was easy to slide off the backseat into the footwell when we went over a stiff bump or around a sharp corner. That was also the year my sister Caroline was born, which was undoubtedly the
reason my father bought the car. The Ericson Children and the Clark children continued to ride in the back of the farm pickup, but the Cook children kicked their toes against a front seat and stared
out the back windows, nicely protected from the dust. The car was the exact measure of six hundred forty acres compared to three hundred or five hundred.
Part of the pleasure to be had from reading this superb novel lies in tracing through the underlying plot template: so, for example, in place of the flurry of letters which facilitates the
communication breakdown in King Lear, we have a set of unanswered telephone messages. But the book's real strength is that despite being so top-heavy it also has its feet planted firmly on the
The Sunday Times, Tom Shone, 8th November 1992
Not so good:
Considerably longer than Lear, less dense with meaning, it neither shocks nor beguiles, but rambles on, a family saga; spiced up here and there, it is familiar stock.
The Times, Christopher Hawtree, October 31st 1992
About the author
Born September 26th 1949, in Los Angeles, California, Smiley grew up in Webster Groves, Missouri, a suburb of St. Louis, and graduated from John Burroughs School. She obtained an A.B. in
literature at Vassar College (1971), then earned an MA at the University of Iowa (1975), M.F.A. (1976) and Ph.D. from the University of Iowa. While working towards her doctorate, she also spent a
year studying in Iceland as a Fulbright Scholar. From 1981 to 1996 she was a professor of English at Iowa State University teaching undergraduate and graduate creative writing workshops, and
continuing to teach there even after relocating to California. In 2001, Smiley was elected a member of The American Academy of Arts and Letters. She participates in the annual Los Angeles Times
Festival of Books in association with UCLA. Smiley chaired the judges' panel for the prestigious Man Booker International Prize in 2009