Opening with the 1953 funeral of patriarch Walter, Smiley follows the Langdon family introduced in Some Luck (2014, etc.) 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. “He had failed to pass the test,” she judges, “not daring to recognize that all was changed.” 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.