Early Warning by Jane Smiley
Continuing the saga that began with Some Luck, Smiley continues her Last Hundred Years Trilogy (the final book, Golden Age came out a couple of weeks ago). The previous book closed with the death of the family patriarch, Walter Langdon in 1953. This one opens with his funeral. It then proceeds to follow the lives of his wife, five living children, and their children. The eldest son, Frank is married with three children, Janet and the twins Richie and Michael. With the help of a friend, he has begun the road to making millions in various industries and establishes his home near New York. The second son, Joe, continues to operate the family farm, eventually jointly with his son Jesse. He is joined on the farm by his mother, Rosanna, wife Lois, sister-in-law Minnie, and daughter Annie. Lillian and her husband, Arthur, face the struggles of life in Washington , D.C. where Arthur is a key member of the CIA. Despite the struggles, their children Tim, Debbie, Dean, and Tina flourish. The third son, Henry, first attends college before becoming a professor. He has a life altering experience near the book’s beginning that resonates throughout. The last child of Walter and Rosanna, Claire, marries and has two children (Gray and Brad) but faces an unhappy marriage. Eloise and Rosa, Rosanna’s sister and niece, are also still chronicled, their life now in California.
While the older generation is followed, the bulk of this book follows the newest generation, the Baby Boomers. While outdoor activities are still plenty, chores have been traded for watching cartoons on the television. Instead of living close together, the cousins do not frequently see each other. Debbie and Janet are the studious two until after college. Richie and Michael often fight and tease each other. Tim takes after his Uncle Frank in many aspects, and not always for the better. The members of this generation weather the social upheavals of the ’60s and ’70s. They drank and tried drugs. One forms a band with his friends, changing from rock to pop once the Beatles become popular. They marched in protests against the Vietnam War. There are unplanned pregnancies that lead to marriages. One sees service in Vietnam. Another becomes caught up in the People’s Temple movement in California. Almost all find ways to rebel against their parents though they eventually settle down and produce children of their own.
Additionally, many issues are addressed. Fear of nuclear war is evident in multiple places, especially early in the Cold War and around the times of the Bay of Pigs and Iranian Hostage Crisis. The popularity of psychoanalysis and effects of alcohol are demonstrated through Andy, Frank’s wife. Several cases of infidelity become evident. A mental breakdown occurs and has lasting effects throughout the rest of the book. The plight of gay men and secrecy they maintained also come to light. There are also brushes with cancer and AIDS. Lastly, the mysterious Charlie is introduced midway through the book and will likely play a key role in the next novel. This novel concludes with a life-altering revelation in 1986.
Overall, I liked reading more about the Langdon family. However, I think Early Warning was not as good as Some Luck. With so many new characters, it was hard to keep track of everyone! The main characters, all of the Langdon family, were easy to keep track of but the secondary characters were not; I often found myself flipping back to a previous mention to refresh my memory. I loved to read about Lillian and Arthur’s love story, the truest of any in the books thus far. It was also interesting to see how Frank changed as he aged; he went from a trouble making youth to self-assured businessman, harsh edge maintained throughout. There are several character deaths in the novel, two of which were heartbreaking (have tissues ready). Smiley did ensure that the historical events and politics of the eras were included, often by working them into conversations, letters, or thought about reading newspaper articles/watching the news. Several historical figures even made cameo appearances, though the appearance of McGeorge Bundy seems a bit forced. Changes in computer technology were even introduced through a son-in-law.
I am interested in see what changes the extended Landgon family will face in Golden Age. I know to expect more character deaths (not all of the war years generation can live to 100) and the effects of the Gulf War and 9/11. But what else will occur? What changes will affect the lives of the characters?
This review is based on my personal copy of Early Warning.
Have you had the opportunity to read Some Luck yet? If so, what were your thought’s comparing the two novels thus far? What did you think about Early Warning? Have you read Golden Age yet? If so, what are your thoughts thus far? My copy arrived this past week, so I hope to read it soon.