book review: A Thousand Acres by Jane Smiley

Anchor, originally published in 1991

A Thousand Acres is King Lear meets twentieth-century midwestern farming; oddly enough, a thematic match made in heaven, the mores of the small Iowan community so richly detailed that the stakes effortlessly mirror medieval English court life. It’s told through the eyes of Ginny, the eldest daughter and Goneril figure, who lives on their father’s thousand acre farm with her husband in a house adjacent to her sister Rose’s (Regan)–the youngest sister, Caroline (Cordelia) has moved away and works as a lawyer. When their aging father announces his retirement and intention to turn the farm over to his three daughters, Caroline admits skepticism and is turned away; Ginny and Rose are then left to battle his cruelty and deterioration into drunkenness while keeping the farm afloat.

While the premise sounds literally transposed from the Shakespeare play, enough details are reinvented to assure the reader that literality is not Smiley’s intention. Rose has cancer, and she has two daughters; Ginny has had five miscarriages and desperately wants a child; Loren (Edgar), in my opinion one of the smartest characters in the original play, is here an afterthought and a bit of a sycophantic idiot; Pete (Cornwall) is a recovering abusive husband, his relationship with Rose unhappy and volatile, while Ginny’s marriage to Ty (Albany) is placid in comparison; the Fool is omitted; Jess (Edmund) is not a scheming mastermind, but instead an unmoored drifter whose interruption of Ginny’s life is unplanned, haphazard. 

And as someone who’s read King Lear about a million times and has spent countless hours thinking about these characters, if I am actively choosing to spend my time reading King Lear retellings, I can’t allow myself to get mired in the details, or else reading retellings just becomes a self-defeating exercise. Half of what I just wrote, what Smiley decided to do with these characters, I don’t agree with; it doesn’t fit my own idea of what a picture-perfect retelling should look like. So I’m much less interested in the details and more interested in the author’s vision, in the ways in which they interact with the original play even–especially–when they choose to deviate. This is where The Queens of Innis Lear, a high fantasy Lear retelling, fell spectacularly short for me, and this is where Smiley succeeded.

Each of Smiley’s characters is tremendously well-drawn, none more-so than the narrator Ginny. Ginny is obedient and self-effacing, the modest counterpart to her sister Rose who blows through the story like a hurricane. The dynamic between these two sisters, united against the obdurate front that is their father, yet more severed than either of them realizes, is what makes this book so memorable and horribly devastating. This is a bleak, stark, humorless work, which accesses the tragic inevitability of the original play and refocuses it. This isn’t the tragedy of Lear as much as it is the tragedy of Goneril, the long-suffering eldest daughter, and in turning this into Ginny’s story, part of the cosmic scale is lost, but the calamity and the creeping dread is recaptured on a smaller, more intimate scale. This is an engrossing, quietly devastating book that deftly examines power, corruption, and betrayal through a melancholic, reflective lens, and I found the result both beautiful and heart-rending.

I prefer to write my reviews without spoilers, but in this case, the spoiler is also a huge trigger, so I do want to talk about that before we go. Highlight the following paragraph to read:

[Trigger warning for sexual assault of a minor. The reveal that the Lear figure had raped Ginny and Rose when they were teenagers didn’t sit well with me at first; for one thing, I tend to take the opinion that books should not introduce sexual assault as a plot point if sexual assault is not their primary focus; for another, it felt to me like a lazy shortcut to giving Ginny and Rose permission to defy their father, an unnecessary addition when the justification for their behavior is already built into the framework of the story. What I did find interesting, though, was how this related to Ginny and Rose’s relationship to Caroline; it was refreshing to see a Lear retelling finally do something interesting with Cordelia, turning her from the archetype of the perfect woman to a stubborn, ungrateful child, choosing not to see the full picture of what Ginny and Rose shielded her from. There’s a line toward the end where Ginny is about to tell Caroline the full truth, and Caroline turns away and refuses to hear it; there’s an acknowledgement that truth can’t be delivered without it being asked for, a shocking subversion from Cordelia’s role in the original play that I found tremendously effective.

18 thoughts on “book review: A Thousand Acres by Jane Smiley

  1. Honestly, the idea of this book sounds really good. I have a tendency to get mired in the parallels as well. It’s so hard not to when they make these comparisons. I’ll give it a go anyways. Thanks for sharing!


  2. Long suffering eldest daughter eh… can relate… 🙂 This sounds really good, even for a King Lear newb like me (read it once in high school I think??)

    And I love the way you approached this review. I agree in retellings it’s not so interesting to point out all the parallels as thing about why some things were followed and others were not. And what the author was trying to do.

    PS in the WordPress Reader the text color thing doesn’t work, but putting some in bold helped me look away in time. Maybe a couple more line breaks would help too. Speaking as someone who almost exclusively reads in the reader. Not an issue for me as I’m not too bothered by spoilers!

    Liked by 1 person

    • LOL omg I knew the color thing doesn’t work in the reader but I was like ‘no one uses the reader right?’ Shocking to discover that my own personal blogging habits are not universal. Anyway I’ll try to tweak the formatting when I’m on my laptop!

      I’d love to hear your thoughts on this as a non-Lear aficionado. I think there’s a lot you’d love! (But also please reread Lear after because omg best play.)


    • Hahaha it came out a year before I was born!! (Annoying–I’m halfheartedly participating in a 2021 reading challenge in a Goodreads group and one of the prompts is ‘a book published the year you were born.’ So close!)

      Liked by 1 person

  3. This sounds really good. And as someone familiar with Lear but somewhat fuzzy on the details since I haven’t read it in a few years, I think a lot of the comparison to Shakespeare wouldn’t bother me!


  4. I’m glad you enjoyed this so much! I read it what feels like a very long time ago, maybe even approaching 20 years ago (?!), and I can’t say that it stood out to me at the time, though I do love a Shakespeare update when done well and I have liked others of Smiley’s works. Have you figured out which Lear adaptation you’ll read next? My library has a graphic novel version I might read, but I thought Dunbar was pretty awful, so I’m not jumping to read another straight-up novel.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Ooh do you know who the graphic novel’s by? That’s not on my radar but I’ll definitely need to check it out. I’m doing We That Are Young by Preti Taneja next! I really didn’t mind Dunbar, I think I 3-starred it, not amazing but it was fine. I actually want to reread that one though before I do my blog post on Lear retellings now that I have a more focused mission. It was short at least!


  5. I’ve been meaning to read this book eventually because of the Iowan farm setting, without realizing it had anything to do with King Lear; I’ll definitely make sure to read Lear first now, and am significantly more interested knowing it’s a retelling! Great review.

    Liked by 1 person

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