Smiley (Private Life, 2010, etc.) follows an Iowa farm family through the thick of the 20th century.
We first meet Walter Langdon in 1920 as he anxiously surveys his fields. Milk prices are down, and anyway “worry-shading-into-alarm [is] Walter’s ever-present state,” thinks wife Rosanna. The freakish accidental death of a toddler daughter is the only incident here that really justifies Walter’s apprehensions (it wouldn’t be a Smiley novel without at least one cruel twist of fate), but underpinning the comparatively placid unfolding of three decades is farm folks’ knowledge that disaster is always one bad crop away, and luck is never to be relied on. (The sardonic folk tale “Lucky Hans” is retold several times.) The Langdons raise five children to varied destinies. Smart, charismatic Frank leaves home for college and the Army. Steady, sensitive Joe stays home on the farm, its perennial round of backbreaking labor somewhat alleviated by such innovations as tractors and commercial fertilizer. Golden girl Lillian marries a government employee who gets Frank involved in spying on suspected communist agents after the war—ironic, since Rosanna’s sister Eloise is a Trotskyist. Times are changing: Henry, the family intellectual, will clearly end up in academia; Lillian and Frank are both living in Eastern suburbs. Youngest daughter Claire is less vivid than her siblings, and the names begin to blur a bit as the postwar baby boom creates a burgeoning new generation, but for the most part Smiley juggles characters and events with her customary aplomb and storytelling craft. The novel doesn’t so much end as stop, adding to the sense that we’ve simply dropped in on a continuing saga. Smiley is the least sentimental of writers, but when Rosanna and Walter look at the 23 people gathered at Thanksgiving in 1948 and “agreed in an instant: something had created itself from nothing,” it’s a moment of honest sentiment, honestly earned.
An expansive, episodic tale showing this generally flinty author in a mellow mood: surprising, but engaging.