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Early Warning


Early Warning

The Langdon family tree provided before the title page hints at the ambitious reach of this novel, the second in a trilogy by Jane Smiley that kicked off with the bestselling SOME LUCK. Beginning in 1953 with the funeral of Walter Langdon and ending in 1986, we flit from character to character like a hummingbird sampling spring blossoms.

Frank Langdon, Walter and Rosanna’s firstborn, becomes a familiar touchpoint. Watchful and canny, he carries his WWII experiences lightly but indelibly, and his brother-in-law Arthur Manning, who works for the CIA, is not above using Frank for certain delicate international operations. The Cold War with Russia infects the imaginations of the children and the activities of the parents --- comparing bomb shelters competes with comparing homes, spouses or jobs. Perhaps the title stems from this anxiety. Frank’s wife, Andy, asks her psychiatrist if there’s something she can do for her child, Janny, who has become obsessed with whether or not they would survive a nuclear strike, and the shrink only calmly recommends a colleague. Andy contemplates her own childhood fears, centered on terrifying Norwegian myths. “Ragnarök or nuclear exchange, what was the difference? How appropriate that the DEW Line (the ‘Distant Early Warning Line’ --- Andy mouthed the words) ran across Greenland, Iceland, and no doubt Norway.”

"Not all readers have the patience for a character-driven novel of this scope... But for me, the pleasures and rewards far outweighed the challenges of this sprawling, luscious work."

One of the pleasures of fiction set in the past is learning about or being reminded of historical, social or political events. From the funny to the tragic, from sailor pants to assassinations, the extended Langdon family endures the bumper car ride of those tumultuous decades. Janny, who has matured into Janet and moved to Berkeley, somewhat narrowly escapes going to Guyana with Reverend Jones; some of her friends make the trip and never come back. And, of course, the Vietnam War does not pass without taking its particular toll.

Smiley handles all of her characters and situations adroitly, and we never feel browbeaten by supercilious references. Inventive detail about inner and outer lives make these characters as real as we are. We recognize ourselves. Here’s the formerly Communist aunt in Berkeley, at age 77: “With three boxes of old clothes to take to the Goodwill, Eloise was wise enough to admit that her life had been a failure, but she didn’t exactly mind it. She liked to think of herself as a sport — a branch of a peach tree that had happened to produce nectarines.”

No matter how far the characters stray from their Iowa roots, even their metaphors remain tied to the land. In 1971, with the rise of ethanol, farming corn starts to make economic sense, and no one is more surprised than Joe, the Langdon boy who has stayed on the farm. “He did say to himself the words ‘a million dollars.’ But he knew enough at his age to know that dollars were like drops of mist --- they fluttered around you and dissipated. The real mystery was how your farm bound you to it, so tightly that you would pay any price (literally, in interest) or make any sacrifice just to take these steps across this familiar undulating ground time and time again.”

Birth, death, romance, despair. EARLY WARNING is episodic. Not all readers have the patience for a character-driven novel of this scope, and if the thought of occasionally referring back to a family tree makes you crazy, buy another book. But for me, the pleasures and rewards far outweighed the challenges of this sprawling, luscious work. I don’t know how I missed SOME LUCK, but I’m looking forward to it.

Reviewed by Eileen Zimmerman Nicol on April 29, 2015

Early Warning
by Jane Smiley

  • Publication Date: January 12, 2016
  • Genres: Fiction, Historical Fiction
  • Paperback: 496 pages
  • Publisher: Anchor
  • ISBN-10: 0307744817
  • ISBN-13: 9780307744814