Summary and book reviews of Some Luck by Jane Smiley

Some Luck

by Jane Smiley

Some Luck by Jane Smiley
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  • First Published:
    Oct 2014, 416 pages
    Paperback:
    Jul 2015, 416 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Alta Ifland

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About this Book

Book Summary

From the winner of the Pulitzer Prize, a powerful, engrossing new novel - the life and times of a remarkable family over three transformative decades in America

On their farm in Denby, Iowa, Rosanna and Walter Langdon abide by time-honored values that they pass on to their five wildly different children: from Frank, the handsome, willful first born, and Joe, whose love of animals and the land sustains him, to Claire, who earns a special place in her father's heart.

Each chapter in Some Luck covers a single year, beginning in 1920, as American soldiers like Walter return home from World War I, and going up through the early 1950s, with the country on the cusp of enormous social and economic change. As the Langdons branch out from Iowa to both coasts of America, the personal and the historical merge seamlessly: one moment electricity is just beginning to power the farm, and the next a son is volunteering to fight the Nazis; later still, a girl you'd seen growing up now has a little girl of her own, and you discover that your laughter and your admiration for all these lives are mixing with tears.

Some Luck delivers on everything we look for in a work of fiction. Taking us through cycles of births and deaths, passions and betrayals, among characters we come to know inside and out, it is a tour de force that stands wholly on its own. But it is also the first part of a dazzling epic trilogy - a literary adventure that will span a century in America: an astonishing feat of storytelling by a beloved writer at the height of her powers.

1920

Walter Langdon hadn't walked out to check the fence along the creek for a couple of months—now that the cows were up by the barn for easier milking in the winter, he'd been putting off fence-mending—so he hadn't seen the pair of owls nesting in the big elm. The tree was half dead; every so often Walter thought of cutting it for firewood, but he would have to get help taking it down, because it must be eighty feet tall or more and four feet in diameter. And it wouldn't be the best firewood, hardly worth the trouble. Right then, he saw one of the owls fly out of a big cavity maybe ten to twelve feet up, either a big female or a very big male—at any rate, the biggest horned owl Walter had ever seen—and he paused and stood for a minute, still in the afternoon breeze, listening, but there was nothing. He saw why in a moment. The owl floated out for maybe twenty yards, dropped toward the snowy pasture. Then came a high screaming, and the owl ...

Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!
  1. What do you think the title means? Whose luck does it refer to? Is it only good or bad luck, or does the word "luck" shift in connotation as the novel goes forward?

  2. Each chapter in the novel takes place over the course of one year. How does Smiley use this structure to propel her story?

  3. Rosanna assigns personality traits to each of her children in infancy. When those traits prove true, do you think it's because of nurture—her and Walter's influence—or nature—personalities fully formed at birth?

  4. How does Smiley use the children's points of view at all ages—including when they are very small—to show their development and coming-of-age in real time? What are some of the memorable traits that carry ...
Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!

Some of the recent comments posted about Some Luck. Join the discussion! You can see the full discussion here.

Each generation of men engages differently in the wars of their times? How does their involvement show their personalities, the nature of war, and America’s evolving role in world conflict?
Walter, in the midst of the horror, found an oriole feather and a piece of heather. As a man of the soil, he delighted in the natural and put the war in a box and returned to his former life. Frank was a sniper. His intelligence and years of ... - joanp

How does Frank's persistence help or hinder him?
I feel that Frank is the main character in the story. I think his persistence will take him far, however, I wonder if he will be happy where it takes him. - nancyh

How does Mary Elizabeth’s death affect Rosanna?
Rosanna changed after Mary Elizabeth's death. She could not understand how this could have happened to her child, was it her fault, the fault of the storm or God. She went about her normal work on the farm, but rarely left home. It was not until ... - nancyh

How does Smiley use the chapter structure to propel her story?
I agree with the idea that this was a refreshing way for the author to tell the story. It was easy to follow...simple like many of the characters and their lives. I agree with those who said the chapter structure mirrors the family itself. - malindan

How does Smiley use the children's points of view to show their development in real time? What are some of their most memorable traits?
This worked well for me and helped show snippets of the kids before they were adults. I can see why this wouldn't be for everyone though since the book is sort of an old fashioned story and generally after a kid is born in a more traditional format ... - alisonf

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Reviews

BookBrowse Review

BookBrowse

Smiley uses an unusual technique to bring their world close to the reader by depicting it through the eyes of baby Frank. The effect is one of immediacy, as his world is made mostly of sensations and wonder. The sensations around his Mama are soft and pleasant, while those around his Papa are more likely to be rough and noisy. Thus, the reader discovers the world along with the baby, and this gradual discovery that expands from the mother’s lap to what happens out of the window, leads to a very sensory reading experience.   (Reviewed by Alta Ifland).

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Media Reviews

Philadelphia Inquirer

Starting from a farm in Iowa, the Langdon family knows growth, diaspora, heartbreak, and passion over three decades. It’s breathtaking to realize that this novel is the first of a trilogy!

BookPage

Marvelous, a tour de force . . . There are farming scenes, sex scenes, combat scenes and table-talk scenes . . . Wherever Smiley goes in Some Luck, most readers will willingly follow. Then wait, with bated breath, for her next steps.

Booklist

Starred Review. Tremendous... Smiley's grand, assured, quietly heroic, and affecting novel is a supremely nuanced portrait of a family spanning three pivotal American decades. It will be on the top of countless to-read lists.

Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. Exciting... In the first volume of a planned trilogy… Smiley plans to extend the tale of the Langdon family well into the 21st century; she's off to a very strong start.

Kirkus Reviews

Starred Review. An expansive tale showing this generally flinty author in a mellow mood: surprising, but engaging.

Library Journal

Highly recommended; a lush and grounded reading experience.

The Bookseller (UK)

Epic, striking . . . The cumulative effect is a story so fully immersive and absorbing that I finished the book with a sense of loss. Masterly.

Reader Reviews

Andrea

Multi-generational saga
This is the first book I've read by Ms. Smiley and I thoroughly enjoyed it. The story follows Rosanna and Walter Langdon and their three children on their farm in Iowa. The Great Depression, drought and wars pull the family in various directions. ...   Read More

Susie J

Some Luck
It was with some luck that I was sent this amazing book by Jane Smiley to read for this web page. It arrived at a very busy time in my year and I feared I would be unable to meet my commitment. But once I began reading, I could not stop. In fact, ...   Read More

Cheri Faith Spicer

Some Luck - Jane Smiley
I have such respect for authors and an immediate pull toward those whose work has garnered time-honored awards such as the Pulitzer. And, I put great stock in the opinion of critics and reviewers who have proven to operate with integrity and ...   Read More

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Beyond the Book

Farm Life in Iowa in the first half of the 20th Century

The QuickeningMichelle Hoover's The Quickening covers roughly the same timeframe and space as Jane Smiley's Some Luck: from the beginning of World War I (rather than its end in Smiley's novel) to 1950, on neighboring farms in the upper Midwest. Hoover, the granddaughter of four farming families, grew up in Ames, Iowa – where Smiley attended graduate school – and her rootedness in this place is evident in her mastery of the characters' dialogue, their unsentimental, earthy personalities, and her rich descriptions of daily farm life. Through a journey that lasts almost half a century, Smiley and Hoover help us understand how American farmers lived during this period.

Like Some Luck, The Quickening is written ...

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