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Golden Age


Golden Age

The third novel in her Last Hundred Years trilogy, Jane Smiley’s GOLDEN AGE completes a family and cultural saga loosely centered on Frank Langdon, born on a farm in Iowa in 1920.

It’s now 1987, and Frank is an aging, retired man --- a father, uncle and grandfather who not everyone in his family likes, but who everyone grudgingly respects. It opens on the farm, at a family reunion called to meet Charlie Wickett, a recently discovered son of Lillian and Arthur Manning’s son, Tim, who died in Vietnam, leaving behind a pregnant girlfriend who gave Charlie up for adoption. All are charmed by the disarming, restless, observant Charlie, even if the reunion adds to some long-simmering rivalries, such as the one between Frank and Andy’s twin sons, Michael and Richie, now putatively adults. “Now Michael got himself together. In their whole life, possibly even in the womb, Michael had been good at getting himself together, though often his initial go-to strategy had been hammering Richie a few times.”

"I regretfully closed GOLDEN AGE feeling moved and impressed. I can’t think of another writer more capable of this kind of scope and drama."

This gathering serves as a reminder of some of the characters we came to know in the first two novels, SOME LUCK and EARLY WARNING --- who they are, where they live, how they feel about each other. And just in case we need a little extra help, the Langdon and Manning family tree is again kindly provided for reference. 

Something I especially cherish about Smiley’s work is her ability to surprise us. Her characters are so expertly drawn that we are doubly moved, and not at all skeptical, when they do something “out of character.” To reveal only one of many emotionally resonant plot points, early on in this book Frank and Andy actually develop a loving relationship, after she literally sleepwalks into his bed. “He was so used to demeaning her, both in his mind and to others, that he was almost afraid that she would turn out not to be the Andy he thought he knew, that he’d been married to for forty years. If she was not herself, he thought, then who was he?” So many sentences say so much: “Janet turned away, and Andy felt the rest of her life entering her body, along her nerve endings.” 

Smiley gets in everyone’s head as they collide with the events of the decades, the large and the small. Richie Langdon becomes Congressman Richard Langdon. Michael Langdon stays one step ahead of the authorities as he wheels and deals, and slices and dices on Wall Street. A family member is on the plane that crashes into the Pentagon in 2001. In Iowa, Frank’s nephew, Jesse, deals with the complexities of farming the family legacy with science and careful and selective use of what the Monsanto salesman has to sell, and congratulates himself that he is only $356,000 in debt. His sons, Guthrie and Perky, enlist in the Army rather than stay on the farm, and end up in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Here’s Guthrie’s take on the situation in Iraq: “The Sunnis thought that Muhammad’s father-in-law should have taken over when Muhammad died, and the Shia thought that his son-in-law, who was also his cousin, should have taken over. He kept to himself the thought that farm families in Iowa would understand the bitterness of this antagonism over issues of inheritance perfectly well; you said it was about principles, but really it was about loyalties and property.”

Intriguingly, Smiley and her characters march right on past 2015. The last chapter is 2019, and the four years coming, according to this long, engrossing novel, are alarming, to say the least. Staying in a hotel together to attend a funeral (not telling whose), Janet and Claire discuss whether or not they’ve lived through a golden age. Both are doubtful, citing greed, climate change and racism. “A golden age, though,” said Janet. “In comparison with what’s to come. Golden ages are always in the past.” Despite the sobering (and, unfortunately, believable) ending to this trilogy, I regretfully closed GOLDEN AGE feeling moved and impressed. I can’t think of another writer more capable of this kind of scope and drama.

Reviewed by Eileen Zimmerman Nicol on October 23, 2015

Golden Age
by Jane Smiley

  • Publication Date: June 28, 2016
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Paperback: 464 pages
  • Publisher: Anchor
  • ISBN-10: 0307744825
  • ISBN-13: 9780307744821