Picks and Pans Review: A Thousand Acres

updated 11/18/1991 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 11/18/1991 AT 01:00 AM EST

by Jane Smiley

In the astonishingly fine The Age of Grief, a novella of love, marriage and adultery, Smiley made clear just how well she knew the cartography of the heart. It was difficult to read her subsequent The Greenlanders and difficult to admire Ordinary Love & Good Will. But it will be difficult to dismiss the very ambitious A Thousand Acres, the story of a farm family's self-destruction that Smiley means to be a sort of corn-belt King Lear.

Lawrence Cook (Lear) owns the most prosperous farm in Zebulon County, Iowa. For reasons never made clear, Lawrence, an alcoholic bully, decides to divide his vast holdings among his daughters—Ginny (King Lear's Goneril), the novel's painfully self-effacing narrator; angry, rebellious Rose (Regan), and independent, calculating Caroline (Cordelia).

Subsequently, Lawrence decides to make it a two-way split between Ginny and Rose when Caroline fails to show sufficient regard for the legacy. The division leads to a bitter harvest: Father turns against daughters, daughters against father, husbands against wives, sisters against sisters, nature against man. And there is a reaping of hideous 20-year-old memories: Lawrence's nocturnal visits to Rose and Ginny's bedrooms.

Smiley writes with unfailing grace and steadiness: "Perhaps there is a distance that is the optimum distance for seeing one's father, farther than across the supper table or across the room, somewhere in the middle distance.... Well, that is a distance I never found.... My mother died before she could present him to us as only a man, with habits and quirks and preferences, before she could diminish him in our eyes enough for us to understand him."

Unfortunately, Smiley's insistence on such an obvious overlaying of Lear forces on A Thousand Acres a grandiosity it can't quite support. Further, the Lear-like plot turns—Lawrence's good friend Harold being blinded like Lear's friend Gloucester—seem imposed on the story rather than organic to it. But taken on its own merits as a story of lost innocence and betrayal, A Thousand Acres hums with an implacable resonance. (Knopf, $23)

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