Book review: Early Warning

Jane SmileyIt opens with a funeral, Frank Langdon, the patriarch. A funeral is a great introduction to the characters, a reminder of Some Luck, the first part of this trilogy. This, the second instalment by Jane Smiley of the life of Frank and Rosanna Langdon’s family, focuses on their children and grandchildren. And it is a sprawling family. Not just who they are but WHO they are, their relationships, their quirks, their oddities.

Jane Smiley is an excellent observer of human behaviour, she reminds me of Jane Austen’s interpretation of family connections, secrets, tensions and disguised emotions. And it is all written in such an unassuming, subtle way. The death of a parent is a landmark in anyone’s life, a reminder of mortality, and in this book we see the maturing of the five Langdon children – ambitious, tricksy Frank; farmer Joe; home-maker Lilian; academic Henry; and youngest Claire.

Smiley has a way of writing these characters from birth to maturity, through changing times, the social and political upheavals of Sixties and Seventies America, without losing the essence of personality. And what a cast it is to handle. Not once did I lose the thread of who was who, except with the appearance towards the end of a character called Charlie. I examined the family tree at the front of the book, no Charlie. The mystery is answered at the end, and sets up part three of the trilogy, Golden Age.

Frank and Andy’s troubled marriage produces troubled children: Janet who becomes entwined in a dodgy religious sect, argumentative twins Michael and Ritchie. Joe has to manage not only the family farm but also the additional land inherited by his wife. The Cold War affects grain prices and he considers whether to borrow money to plant seed when the crop may not earn enough to fulfil the loan. Lillian and Arthur’s son Tim goes off to Vietnam, meanwhile Arthur continues to cope with the emotional stress of his Government intelligence job and what comes with it, the prior knowledge of horrible secrets, dirty tricks and bribes. Henry confronts his sexuality, but will he tell his conservative family? Claire, the youngest, marries a doctor who wants to control her life, and that of their sons, in a protective instinct which becomes overwhelming.

It is impossible to summarize a plot which strides the Kennedy assassination, Watergate, the Civil Rights movement and AIDS, but Smiley handles the transition – with one year for each chapter – with ease.

This is a big book [over 700 pages] but few big books are this easy and pleasurable to read. Jane Smiley has already won the Pulitzer, with this trilogy she enters the territory of ‘greatest living’ American author.

Here’s my review of Some Luck, first of the trilogy.
If you like ‘Early Warning’, try these other ‘big’ American novels:-
A Thousand Acres by Jane Smiley
‘A Spool of Blue Thread’ by Anne Tyler
‘Freedom’ by Jonathan Franzen

‘Early Warning’ by Jane Smiley, LastHundredYears#2 [UK: Mantle] Buy at Amazon

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EARLY WARNING by Jane Smiley @MantleBooks http://wp.me/p5gEM4-217 #bookreview via @SandraDanby