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.