Last night I finished reading A Thousand Acres by Jane Smiley. I’d had several people tell me it was good, but I really resisted reading it because 1) it was so popular, 2) the movie based on the book looked really bad, and 3) the idea of reinterpreting the story of King Lear on a Midwestern family farm in the late seventies sounded a little too clever. A couple years ago I read Moo by Smiley, which I really enjoyed. Then I bought this and had it sit around on my bookshelf for a while. Last week I picked it up and I could hardly put it down.
Really good. Really.
Maybe I’m predisposed to it because it is a story of three sisters, told by the oldest, and I am the oldest of three sisters. Actually, I love stories and movies about three sisters, and there are a ton of them. Like Cries and Whispers, Happiness, Hannah and her Sisters, Fiddler on the Roof, Cinderella (even though they are evil step-sisters), ummm…. King Lear, ummm….. Three Sisters by Chekov. Okay, I know there are probably some really obvious ones that I’m missing, but you get the idea. There was actually an interesting article on the three sisters motif in art that I read sometime and now I can’t remember where. It talked about how the oldest, middle and youngest always have certain traits based on their birth order in these stories, and that there are usually coalitions (oldest two vs. youngest, youngest two vs. oldest) that sometimes change during the story. It was very intriguing, because there really is this myth of three sisters where the oldest is all responsible, the middle is all wild, and the youngest is super independent. And in some ways, that myth is a little bit true, which makes it all the more interesting when it pops up in books and movies and you happen to be the responsible oldest of three sisters.
So, back to A Thousand Acres: this is the story of King Lear, but told by the oldest daughter. In Shakespeare’s story, you mostly get the point of view of the youngest daughter and the King. Also, it uses King Lear as a guide, but goes beyond that so it isn’t just a cutesy gimmick. It does have a lot of tragedy in it (since King Lear isn’t exactly a musical comedy), but its hopeful at the end without being cheesy or “happily ever after.” This is actually one of the best books I’ve read in awhile.