Synopses & Reviews
Longlisted for the 2014 National Book Award
From the winner of the Pulitzer Prize: a powerful, engrossing new novel — the life and times of a remarkable family over three transformative decades in America.
On their farm in Denby, Iowa, Rosanna and Walter Langdon abide by time-honored values that they pass on to their five wildly different children: from Frank, the handsome, willful first born, and Joe, whose love of animals and the land sustains him, to Claire, who earns a special place in her father’s heart.
Each chapter in Some Luck covers a single year, beginning in 1920, as American soldiers like Walter return home from World War I, and going up through the early 1950s, with the country on the cusp of enormous social and economic change. As the Langdons branch out from Iowa to both coasts of America, the personal and the historical merge seamlessly: one moment electricity is just beginning to power the farm, and the next a son is volunteering to fight the Nazis; later still, a girl you’d seen growing up now has a little girl of her own, and you discover that your laughter and your admiration for all these lives are mixing with tears.
Some Luck delivers on everything we look for in a work of fiction. Taking us through cycles of births and deaths, passions and betrayals, among characters we come to know inside and out, it is a tour de force that stands wholly on its own. But it is also the first part of a dazzling epic trilogy — a literary adventure that will span a century in America: an astonishing feat of storytelling by a beloved writer at the height of her powers.
“Smiley is prolific [and] seemingly writes the way her idol Dickens did — as easily as if it were breathing....She made up her mind at an early age that she was going to master not just one genre, but all of them. Her new book is the first volume of a trilogy — one of the few forms left for her to tackle....Some Luck starts in 1920 and follows the fortunes of a Midwestern farming family; each chapter covers a single year. What most surprised her, she said, was the way that, more than in her other books, the characters took on lives of their own. ‘I got the feeling that I got on a train and sat down, and all these people were talking. I was eavesdropping, and the train was just heading into the future.’” Charles McGrath, The New York Times
“Brilliant...Smiley is one of America’s most accomplished and wide-ranging novelists, [and] Some Luck finds her in her most tender mode....As the Langdons’ five children grow up and scatter from coast to coast, Some Luck demonstrates how events on an isolated, unsophisticated farm in the middle of the country represent and influence the larger story of America.” Dallas Morning News
“This sweeping, carefully plotted novel traces the history, from 1920 to the Cold War era, of a single Iowa farming family. Each chapter focuses on one year, setting the minor catastrophes and victories of the family’s life against a backdrop of historical change, particularly the Great Depression. As the children branch out from their tiny town, so, too, does the story, eventually encompassing several generations, cities, and cultural movements. Smiley, like one of her characters contemplating the guests at the Thanksgiving table, begins with an empty house and fills it ‘with twenty-three different worlds, each one of them rich and mysterious.’” The New Yorker
“A ravishing and defiantly old-fashioned novel set on the same Iowa soil Smiley tilled in her Pulitzer Prize-winning A Thousand Acres.... Reminiscent of the work of Willa Cather and Alice Munro, Some Luck chronicles one family’s triumphs and travails as they work to wrest a living from their farm. Opening in 1920, [it] tracks the fates of Walter and Rosanna Langdon and their children over three decades. Their union endures, roiled by doubt at times, yet rooted in a bone-deep connection. Some Luck ingeniously spirals outward from the farm and back again, capturing the arc of personal and historical change in forthright prose that unexpectedly takes flight.” O, The Oprah Magazine
“Sweeping....Smiley’s most commanding novel yet. She is a master storyteller — that rare ‘three-fer’: meticulous historian, intelligent humorist and seasoned literary novelist.” Los Angeles Times
“Engaging, bold...Smiley delivers a straightforward, old-fashioned tale of rural family life in changing times, depicting isolated farm life with precision....It is especially satisfying to hear a powerful writer narrate men’s and women’s lives lovingly and with equal attention. Subtle, wry and moving.” The Washington Post
“Convincing....A young couple, Walter and Rosanna Langdon, are just setting out on their own [in] 1920. Eventually they will have five children; Smiley gives each of them a turn in the spotlight, filling in the details of their lives and drawing the reader into a story meant to last a long time....Smiley has been compared to some of the great writers of the 19th century, [and] in that tradition, she gives her trilogy the sweep of history. But what interests her most is the way historic events play out in the lives of one family whose roots are deeply embedded in the middle of America.” Lynn Neary, NPR Weekend Sunday Edition
“Marvelous, a tour de force....Wherever Smiley goes in Some Luck, most readers will willingly follow. Then wait, with bated breath, for her next steps.” BookPage
“Tremendous...Smiley is a seductive writer in perfect command of every element of language. She was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for A Thousand Acres, a novel about a farming family in Iowa, and she returns to that fertile ground to tell the stories of the Langdons, a clan deeply in accord with the land....Smiley’s grand, assured, quietly heroic, and affecting novel is a supremely nuanced portrait of a family spanning three pivotal American decades. It will be on the top of countless to-read lists.” Booklist (starred review)
“Audaciously delicious....Every character here steals our heart. Smiley has turned her considerable talents to the story of an Iowa farm and the people who inhabit it. The suspense is found in the impeccably drawn scenes and in the myriad ways in which Smiley narrows and opens her camera’s lens. Her language has the intimacy of a first-person telling; her stance is in-the-moment. Always at the narrative hearth stand Walter and Rosanna and that Iowa farm, a character in its own right, a landscape remembered by those who flee to Chicago, Italy, San Francisco, Washington D.C. and New York....We read these lives, and we find our own.” Chicago Tribune
From the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of A Thousand Acres:
a heartwarming, deeply engaging new novel-the life and times of an American farm family over three transformative decades-certain to become an instant classic.
On their farm in Denby, Iowa, Rosanna and Walter Langdon abide by time-honored values that they pass on to their five wildly different yet equally remarkable children: Frank, the brilliant, stubborn first-born; Joe, whose love of animals makes him the natural heir to his family's land; Lillian, an angelic child who enters a fairy-tale marriage with a man only she will fully know; Henry, the bookworm who's not afraid to be different; and Claire, who earns the highest place in her father's heart. Moving from post-World War I America through the early 1950s, Some Luck gives us an intimate look at this family's triumphs and tragedies, zooming in on the realities of farm life, while casting-as the children grow up and scatter to New York, California, and everywhere in between-a panoramic eye on the monumental changes that marked the first half of the twentieth century. Rich with humor and wisdom, twists and surprises, Some Luck takes us through deeply emotional cycles of births and deaths, passions, and betrayals, displaying Smiley's dazzling virtuosity, compassion, and understanding of human nature and the nature of history, never discounting the role of fate and chance. This potent conjuring of many lives across generations is a stunning tour de force.
About the Author
Jane Smiley is the author of numerous novels, including A Thousand Acres, which was awarded the Pulitzer Prize, as well as five works of nonfiction and a series of books for young adults. In 2001 she was inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and in 2006 she received the PEN USA Lifetime Achievement Award for Literature. She lives in Northern California.
Reading Group Guide
The questions, discussion topics, and reading list that follow are intended to enhance your reading group’s discussion of Some Luck,
the engrossing, vividly textured new novel by beloved Pulitzer Prize–winning author Jane Smiley.
1. What do you think the title means? Whose luck does it refer to? Is it only good or bad luck, or does the word “luck” shift in connotation as the novel goes forward?
2. Each chapter in the novel takes place over the course of one year. How does Smiley use this structure to propel her story?
3. Rosanna assigns personality traits to each of her children in infancy. When those traits prove true, do you think it’s because of nurture—her and Walter’s influence—or nature—personalities fully formed at birth?
4. How does Smiley use the children’s points of view at all ages—including when they are very small—to show their development and coming-of-age in real time? What are some of the memorable traits that carry from infancy to young adulthood for each of the five children?
5. How does Mary Elizabeth’s death affect Rosanna? How does it change her relationship with the children who follow?
6. Throughout the story, Frank is described as persistent, if not outright stubborn. How does this quality help him in his life? Does it hinder him?
7. Variations on the story of Lucky Hans appear several times in the novel, including the version told by Opa to Frank in 1924, Lillian’s version remembered by Henry in 1947, and Arthur’s tale of Frank and the golden egg in 1952. What point is Smiley making by changing the mythology?
8. Over the course of the three decades Some Luck spans, various characters embrace or resist new technology—Walter and the tractor, Rosanna and electricity, Joey’s farming techniques, Frank’s study of German warfare. How does Smiley use their reactions to deepen our understanding of these characters and to show the passage of time?
9. On page 104, Eloise says to Frank, “Almost everyone sees things, but not everyone notices them.” What does she mean, and why is it fitting that she says this to Frank, of all her nephews and nieces? How does Frank exemplify the difference between seeing and noticing, especially as he uses his keen sense of “vision” to lead him throughout his life?
10. What does Walter think and feel during the scene at the well? What do his decisions at that moment say about his own personality and the circumstances of the times? Why doesn’t he tell Rosanna about it until many years later?
11. What are examples of the different kinds of secrets that come in the novel—from those held by individuals to those of institutions, such as banks or the government? Do you have the sense that the book suggests a hierarchy of secrecy, or are all secrets equally dangerous?
12. How do you understand Andy’s identity crises and her other internal conflicts within the context of the novel? How do they reflect her relationship with Frank as well as the political and sociological forces at work during these beginning days of the Cold War?
13. What role do faith and religion play in the early parts of the novel? What about for the subsequent generation? Would you say that religion is related to the theme of luck?
14. Joey is distraught to learn of Jake’s death on page 229. Later, on page 373, he tells Lois, “I don’t get over things.” Is this why he’s so suited to farming? And does he, eventually, learn to get over things?
15. On Walter’s forty-seventh birthday, he lets each of his children select an item from a box he’d kept locked away. Joey chooses the sprig of lavender, Lillian the oriole feather, and Henry the gold coin; Claire was given the handkerchief; and Rosanna saves the photograph of Walter during the Great War for Frank. What do these totems represent?
16. Rosanna reflects on page 264, “Well, that’s what a war did for you—it made you look around at your shabby house and your modest family and give thanks for what you had and others had lost. . . . It made you stop talking about what you wished for, because, in the end, that might bring bad luck.” Frank was lucky and survived the war, but he’s far from unscathed when he returns home. Do his experiences verify or contradict Rosanna’s claim about the effects of war? How does what happened to him in Europe ripple throughout the rest of his life, as well as the lives of his family?
17. How do the generations of men engage differently in the wars of their times? What does their involvement show about their respective personalities, the nature of war, and America’s evolving role in world conflict?
18. How does parenting change from one generation to the next? Compare Lillian and Andy to Rosanna, and Arthur and Frank to Walter. And what about the roles of the sexes?
19. On page 392, Walter walks near the Osage-orange hedge: “Every year, Joe said, as Walter always had, that he was going to pull it up, but he never did—the roots had probably spread everywhere, and taking the thing out would be a major pain in the neck. There was always a reason not to bother. Walter touched one of the thorns. He was used to the hedge, but the thorns still seemed menacing.” What, if anything, do you think the Osage-orange hedge stands for, in the book as a whole? What metaphors are at work here?
20. By the end of Some Luck, Henry is just becoming an adult and Claire is still a child. What do you think might be ahead for them in the next book(s) of this trilogy?
21. Did your knowledge that Some Luck is the first of a trilogy affect your reading of the novel? In what ways is the conclusion of the book definitive, full circle, and in what ways does it leave things open-ended?