book review: A Thousand Acres by Jane Smiley




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.

book review: The Queens of Innis Lear by Tessa Gratton




THE QUEENS OF INNIS LEAR by Tessa Gratton
★★★☆☆
Tor, 2018


The Queens of Innis Lear is a fantasy retelling of King Lear, focusing on the young generation characters (primarily Cordelia, Goneril, Regan, and Edmund) in a fictional kingdom called Innis Lear. It starts off as a faithful adaptation (think Lear but with magic)–the titular King is abdicating the throne, and he makes a shocking choice to split the crown equally between his three daughters, provided that they pass the test he sets out for them: to each declare that they love him more than their sisters. Goneril (Gaela, in Gratton’s novel) and Regan (still Regan), manipulative and self-serving, both pass his test, but his youngest and most loyal daughter, Cordelia (Elia), refuses to participate and is banished.

To say I love this play is an understatement (hi, if you’re new here, King Lear is my favorite play) and I’m finding it nearly impossible to untangle my thoughts on how I feel about this as a novel from how I feel about it as a retelling, so we’re just going to go into an aggressive amount of detail and hope something coherent materializes. Mild spoilers forthcoming (mostly about the narrative roles of the characters within the novel, not about specific plot points).

Tonally and thematically, Tessa Gratton accesses a lot of what makes Lear so special and I found that I mostly enjoyed my reading experience for that alone. I always say that Lear is a simultaneously cosmic and intimate play, concerned both with Nature and human nature, and the way Gratton literalizes these themes into her magic system and her worldbuilding is done tremendously well. The writing too has a rich, indulgent quality that suits the tone of the book; it’s slowly paced and thoughtful, which felt appropriate to the story, though I imagine others may get bored early on without a love of Lear driving you forward.

Though, that love of Lear (along with how intimately well I know this play) did end up being a double-edged sword. Gratton had my investment from the very first page without really needing to earn it, and that certainly helped me devour this 600 page book in a little over a week. But on the other hand, I started to become more and more frustrated with the ways in which Gratton engaged with this play.

First is a rather specific annoyance, that luckily only occurred four or five times, but it was jarring enough that I have to mention it. The first half or two thirds of this novel follow the plot of Lear very closely, to the point where entire scenes from the play were acted out in this book. In theory that’s not something that bothers me; what does bother me is Gratton taking word-for-word dialogue from the play and modernizing it so I felt like I was reading No Fear Shakespeare. 

Here are a couple of direct side-by-side comparisons so you can see what I mean. Gratton’s sentences are first, Shakespeare’s are second:

“He has always loved Astore rather more than Connley.”
“I thought the King had more affected the Duke of Albany than Cornwall.”

“Nothing will come from nothing. Try again, daughter.”
“Nothing can come of nothing. Speak again.”

“I cannot heave my heart into my mouth, Father. I love you… as I should love you, being your daughter, and always have. You know this.”
“Unhappy that I am, I cannot heave/ My heart into my mouth. I love your Majesty/ According to my bond; no more nor less.”

“It is only a note from my brother, and I’ve not finished reading it. What I’ve read so far makes me think it’s not fit for you to see.” 
“I beseech you sir, pardon me. It is a letter from my brother that I have not all o’er-read; and for so much as I have perus’d, I find it not fit for your o’erlooking.”

It’s this but it would go on for entire conversations. Here’s the thing: this is pointless and distracting and when you go up against Shakespeare on a sentence by sentence level, you’re going to lose every time. 

Now, let’s get into the characters, because that’s where my real problem with this book lies.

I found Gratton’s portrayal of the Edmund character (Ban) endlessly frustrating. You could see her bending over backward to humanize Edmund, making these minor, pointless adjustments (Ban being older than his legitimate brother rather than younger, meaning his bastardy is the only thing standing in the way of his inheritance; Gloucester [Errigal] insisting that Edgar [Rory] inherit even after his alleged betrayal of his father) to amp up the reader’s sympathy, but frankly, a lot of Edmund’s charm was lost in the process. Edmund is my favorite character and I know I’m not alone in holding that opinion: the reason people love Edmund is because of his complexity and contradictions; he’s already deeply human in the play and I felt that Gratton flattened that out of him in an attempt to make his transgressions to come from a play of moral purity.

The parallel/inversion between Edmund and Cordelia in the play is fascinating to me–both youngest children, both loved by their fathers, one good, one evil, their fates intertwined in a chilling way. That Gratton chose to explore this connection was an exciting choice for me, but I felt that turning it into a romance added nothing, and in fact lost quite a bit, especially when it came at the narrative expense of what I think a lot of readers find to be a much more compelling dynamic; that between Ban and Morimaros (the King of France figure). (That’s another thing. This book had every opportunity to be explicitly queer, but there were only ever hints and whispers of queerness on the page, which I found frustrating.) 

If I were to detail every single character-related annoyance I had we’d be here for a while, so here are some other highlights: I felt that Edgar (Rory) was underutilized and misrepresented when he was on the page. Aefa is the single most pointless character I have read in anything, ever, and the fact that her POV chapters weren’t cut suggests to me that the editor just gave up. The old generation characters were all incredibly one-note; if you want to write a retelling focusing on the younger generation, that’s fine, but King Lear himself shouldn’t need to have a POV chapter to be a complex and interesting character. 

But we’re getting rather nitpicky now so let’s zoom back out. This book was marketed as a “feminist King Lear retelling” and a word that I’ve seen a lot of people use to talk about it is “subversive.” But my issue is that it was not, at all. As I mentioned above, the first half of the book follows Lear with dogged faithfulness, and after that, things start to go off the rails. Which is fine, fun, exactly what I’m here for! If I wanted to read King Lear I’d just read King Lear. But when Gratton started taking control of the narrative, her choices, to me, started to become more and more unwieldy. Nothing she did felt to me like a direct, deliberate subversion of the play; it felt like she had more interest in telling her own story with these characters than doing so as a means to engage with the original text, and that’s something that I think makes for an unsuccessful retelling. I don’t think you need to have complete and utter reverence for the original, but I think a love for the play coupled with a clear vision for how to engage with it is necessary. I felt–especially after reading an interview with Gratton–that her aim here was as nebulous as ‘King Lear but with better female characters’, and as a staunch Lear fan, I was rooting for this book but it really let me down in the end.

But I will end on a positive note (sort of): while I felt that Elia was as stiff and uninteresting as cardboard, I thought Gratton succeeded in doing some very interesting things with Gaela and Regan; Gaela particularly. The ways in which Gratton played with gender in Gaela’s chapters were dynamic and exciting and I think that along with the aforementioned magic system, Gaela’s character is this novel’s primary strength. 

This is already the longest review I’ve written in ages and I’m not sure how to end it. Bottom line, do I recommend this book? While I appreciate you sticking with me for this long, probably in hopes of me answering that question, I’m sorry to say that I really don’t know. I think you should be interested in Lear but not love Lear, maybe that’s the key to unlocking the optimal reading experience.

Project Shakespeare: month #2 wrap up

As you’ve probably noticed, Shakespeare has utterly taken over my life lately, in the form of weekly readings over Zoom.  If you missed my first Project Shakespeare wrap up you can read that here, but now we’re done with month #2, which is a little surreal to think about.  Anyway, let’s talk through these plays:

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As You Like It
★★★☆☆
my role: Celia

The thing about As You Like It is that it’s… really fucking weird?! The conflict that’s set up in the first act never really materializes into anything (what even happens to Frederick?), character development happens entirely off-stage or without reason (Oliver’s a good guy now! because… Celia needs a husband!), there is an OFF-STAGE LION ATTACK? IN THE MIDDLE OF THE FRENCH FOREST?, there’s a wedding in which two people are married by… an actual god?! What even is this play???!  (Potentially a satire of the pastoral genre, I know; still, regardless of its intentions, it’s weird as hell and it’s hard to totally warm up to.)

But it’s equally hard not to be at least a little charmed by it. The friendship between Rosalind and Celia is one of the most pure and touching female friendships that Shakespeare wrote, and I had a blast playing Celia, who starts out sweet and simple and becomes increasingly more jaded and frustrated by Rosalind’s shenanigans, while still lending her support.  Celia is truly the unsung MVP of this play.  Though, shout-out to Patrick for his minute-long dramatic entrance as Jaques (Jay-kweez).

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Hamlet
★★★★★
my role: Laertes

I mean… it’s Hamlet.  This is actually only one of two Shakespeare plays I ever studied in school (the other being Macbeth), so I feel like I have a stronger grasp on it than some others, and I do enjoy it immensely.

As a group, I think we were all a little nervous about Hamlet – it was only the second tragedy we’ve done after Macbeth, and Macbeth is still a ‘fun’ play in a way that Hamlet isn’t.  The prospect of putting on a 3+ hour Zoom production of Hamlet was a little daunting, but those 3+ hours positively flew by.  We divided the role of Hamlet into two (everyone knows that Hamlet is a massive role, but for context, he has twice as many lines as Prospero in The Tempest, which is… already a massive role), jokingly into Ham and Let, and both halves of our Ham/Let duo brought so much heart and passion (and sass) that it was a joy to watch.  The two other clear stars that emerged were our Claudius and Ophelia; two characters I’ve never given much thought to, Claudius being so easy to portray as a mustache-twirling villain and Ophelia being The Generic Tragic Ingenue.  But Abby brought such a pathos and humanity to Claudius that this monologue gave us all chills, and Pamela broke all of our hearts with her tender portrayal of Ophelia.  Really incredible acting all around this week.

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Comedy of Errors
★★★★☆
my role: Solinus

Following Hamlet, we opted for the shortest play.  And what an unexpected breath of fresh air this was!  All I knew going into this was that it was one of Shakespeare’s earlier plays and that it was about two sets of twins and mistaken identity, and, indeed, that’s pretty much all there is to it.  Heavy on the commedia dell’arte vibes, Comedy of Errors is just an unapologetically stupid romp, and I enjoyed every second of it.  Its short length is absolutely part of its charm, because it smartly does not overstay its welcome (these dumb characters already take far too long to catch on to what’s happening), but by the time it ended I think everyone wanted another hour of it.

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King Lear
★★★★★
my role: Edmund

I actually have no words for this experience but I’ll try to come up with something.  King Lear is my favorite Shakespeare play – I’m utterly obsessed with the high-stakes drama and scale of tragedy.  It’s also thematically satisfying and narratively ambiguous in a way that REALLY works to my tastes, and I think it has the most devastating ending of any Shakespeare play.  Edmund is my favorite character – he’s the one I’ve always been the most compelled by, and I think he’s one of Shakespeare’s more interesting villains.  Because in a lot of ways, he’s set up to be a sort of underdog hero – most of his ‘thou nature art my goddess’ monologue appeals directly to the audience and is actually disturbingly compelling.  Because yes, who among us has not been screwed out of something we deserve; why shouldn’t he fight for what’s been denied to him by unjust social custom?  Of course, that’s up until his line ‘well then, legitimate Edgar’ when the monologue takes a turn for the sinister and you realize that Edmund’s ambitions are naturally at the expense of his own family.  But even after he is set up as the play’s chief antagonist (along with Goneril and Regan), his motives remain clear and cogent and perversely sympathetic – and his dying moments show a flicker of tenderness toward his brother that suggest that power for power’s sake was never the goal so much as being accepted by the family that he betrays – and I am unendingly interested in untangling the knot that is his character.

Anyway, much as I love Edmund, I felt nervous about requesting him.  If you’ve been following the roles I’ve been taking, you will see a very clear pattern: Straight Good Men and ingenues.  Both of which I’ve had a lot of fun with, but neither of which require a whole lot of… acting?  (Or at least, you can get away with less acting; I should put it that way.)  But I decided fuck it, I would never have this opportunity again and I would be kicking myself if I requested Cordelia out of fear (though I do quite like Cordelia).

Everything about this production was magical.  I know it probably sounds hyperbolic to call it a production, but the caliber of everyone involved blew me away.  (You can watch the eye gouging scene here; I truly cannot recommend it highly enough.)  Abby and Rachel choreographed that scene beautifully and Abby, who was a brilliant Gloucester, played the rest of the show with a blindfold onMaggie played Kent’s disguise with an Irish accent; Ashley played Edgar with FOUR ACCENTS.  And Pamela and Chelsea were the absolute heart and soul of this production as Lear and Cordelia respectively; I have chills just thinking about the final act and how much the two of them broke my heart (and has there ever been a more chilling line than ‘Never, never, never, never, never’).  Anyway, it’s hard to evaluate your own performance with any kind of objectivity, but I am proud of having pushed myself out of my comfort zone for this, as playing Edmund was an absolute dream and I would do it again in a heartbeat.  Doing a play a week has been brilliant but I’m finding it a little hard to move on from this one!


So that’s that!  Up next: Much Ado About Nothing.  Stay tuned for the next installment in a month.

Shakespeare question of the day and in honor of me memorizing both ‘thou nature art my goddess’ and ‘this is the excellent foppery of the world’ this week – what’s your favorite Shakespeare monologue?  Comment and tell me!

book review: Dunbar by Edward St. Aubyn

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DUNBAR by Edward St. Aubyn
★★★☆☆
Hogarth Shakespeare, October 2017

Dunbar is the sixth novel in the Hogarth Shakespeare series, but it was actually my first. (No, I haven’t read Hag-Seed.) So it wasn’t a desire to keep up with the Hogarth series that drove me to click ‘request’ on this title – I was drawn to it because for whatever reason I just really, really like King Lear.

The main question on my mind as I was reading was: what exactly is the purpose of a retelling? I don’t think there’s ever going to be a definitive consensus on this subject, as I’m sure some of us prefer our retellings on the more literal side, while others prefer them to be more abstract. But in general, I’d say that for a retelling to be a success, that the book should pay homage to the original while still adding something new to the story – maybe exploring certain themes present in the original in greater depth.

So with that in mind, how did Dunbar fare? I can’t quite make up my mind. Dunbar is a contemporary spin on the tale in which the titular figure is a Canadian media mogul, whose company is currently being usurped by his two vindictive daughters, Abby and Megan. The story begins in medias res, with Henry Dunbar in a care home somewhere outside Manchester, telling the story of how he was betrayed by his two power-hungry daughters, and how he regrets betraying his other, loyal daughter, Florence, by cutting her out of the trust.

While it doesn’t follow King Lear to a T, it really only ever deviates by omission. (The subplot with Edgar and Edmund isn’t really present at all.) But where it zeroes in on the relationship between Lear and his daughters, Dunbar is an extremely literal retelling. I mean, Regan is actually called Megan. On the one hand, it was done very well, and on the other, there wasn’t a whole lot left to the imagination.

Interestingly, one facet of Lear that I thought went unexplored in Dunbar is actually one of its most salient themes: the fraught balance between fate and chaos – how much of our human nature is free will and how much is predetermined by planetary influence? The passages in which Henry Dunbar grapples with his ‘madness’ I thought were some of the weakest, and they really missed the opportunity to delve into this theme. Instead, this is a very stripped down King Lear, which ostensibly focuses on the reconciliation between Dunbar (Lear) and Florence (Cordelia). It was well done in its own right, but I couldn’t help wanting more out of this story.

Dunbar was also my first encounter with Edward St. Aubyn, who admittedly I hadn’t even heard of before now, but I have to say that for the most part I was impressed. His writing is lively and clever; I was awed by his intelligence on more than one occasion. I’ll readily admit that as someone with essentially zero knowledge of the stock market, a lot of the details of this book went right over my head – but St. Aubyn still kept me engaged, with stakes that consistently felt high even when some of the details escaped me.

Bottom line (insofar as I am able to give a bottom line when I’m as conflicted as I clearly am about this book): as a novel in its own right, Dunbar was strangely riveting and stimulating. As a King Lear retelling, it left a lot to be desired. Nevertheless, I did really enjoy reading this, and was fully prepared to give it 4 stars until its overly hasty conclusion, which unfortunately left me dissatisfied. 3.5 stars, rounded down.

Thank you Netgalley, Hogarth, and Edward St. Aubyn for the advanced copy provided in exchange for an honest review.