Jane Smiley’s sequel to Some Luck returns us to the Langdon clan, a sprawling, close-knit family, spread from coast to coast and anchored in the center by the Iowa family farm, a bastion of traditional values which most of the five siblings flee, but which feeds them all.
This will certainly be one of my favorite books of the year. Lived out over three decades, told one year at a time, the Langdon family saga is one of highs and lows, births and deaths, secrets and revelations, alcoholism, Communism, materialism, backroom deals, extramarital affairs, rebellions, fistfights, closeted homosexuality, and, above all, familial bonds. The fairly recent timeline gives the reader the luxury of reliving near-current events such as the Vietnam War, the Jonestown massacre, the Reagan Presidency, the emergence of AIDS, and more.
For all its astute historical and cultural observations, though, Early Warning’s real strength lies in Smiley’s expert characterizations. Numerous though they be – more than 40 in this book, conjugated in, thank goodness, a family tree – Smiley imbues each of her characters with a unique, complex, memorable personality. And, contrary to current literary fashion, Smiley writes with genuine affection for even the most flawed among them. As a result, the reader will like the Langdons, too: Joe, the reticent farmer; Frank, the shrewd, macho womanizer; sensitive, intelligent Claire; Andy, the frustrated housewife; Henry, the closeted gay; the self-centered Rosa and her Communist mother, Eloise, and many more.
It’s a disparate bunch. All many of these characters have in common is the family tie that binds them – but, in Smiley’s tale, that’s all they need.