Jane Smiley's Golden Age Marks the End of an Era

The author Jane SmileyEXPAND
The author Jane Smiley
Derek Shapton

The thought of writing a series that spans a century with each chapter representing a year might sound daunting to some authors. Jane Smiley, however, is not just any author. With her latest novel, Golden Age, she closes out what has been dubbed the Last Hundred Years trilogy, a series that began last fall with Some Luck, followed by Early Warning.

The series began on Rosanna and Walter Langdon’s Iowa farm in the 1920s and Golden Age takes readers from 1987 up to 2020, lending a bit of a prophetic eye to the world beyond the pages. The cast of characters is as extensive as a Russian novel—luckily Smiley includes a handy family tree at the beginning. The second generation of Langdons (Frank, Joe, Henry, and Claire) are well into middle age, and their children work in varying areas from politics to education; Joe’s son, Jesse, keeps working on the farm, one last connection to their agricultural roots.

Instead of focusing on the fragmentation of family, Smiley thrusts us into a more geopolitical realm. Various characters take us through historical benchmarks such as the financial crisis of 2007-08, 9/11, both Iraq wars, and Hurricane Sandy (notable, however, is the relative glossing over of issues such as immigration and racism, which are not at the forefront).

Still, there’s much to admire in Smiley’s work: Her attention to detail in each and every year; her knowledge of politics, environmentalism, and genetics; her humor; her stripped back prose. On the farm, descriptions of the land put you right in the heart of a place that is rapidly disappearing: “[Emily] would not have said this to anyone, but she did trade a thought with [the fox] before it trotted off—not words, but perspective, the tunnel through the corn, amplified sounds of crickets, the crusty feel of the dirt beneath its paws.”

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Smiley chronicles 20th-century life like few have, with the same scope and fastidiousness of Phillip Roth, Saul Bellow, and John Updike. After reading about five generations of a family, wars, financial crises, global warming, and the rise of the technological age it makes you stop and think about how much has changed, and yet how little has changed at the same time. Even though Claire is upbeat and observes at the end that, “[She] did think right then that all golden ages, perhaps, were discovered within,” Smiley doesn’t seem entirely convinced—perhaps there never was and never will be a golden age.

Despite its strengths, Golden Age may be more relatable to some readers than others (white middle-class America). Then again, if you’ve been to college, watched the news in the last ten years, or are part of a family, there are other things to hold on to. Even if you can’t find much in common with the Langdons, perhaps you’ll have a better idea of this place we call the US.

Jane Smiley at Miami Book Fair
An Evening With Jane Smiley takes place tonight at the Chapman Conference Center starting at 6 p.m. Tickets are $15. For more info visit miamibookfair.com

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