Gripping family saga.
It seems to be a prerequisite of the modern novel that after a few chapters of contemporary storytelling we are pinged back in time so that author can tell a parallel story . . . Typical, then, of the quietly great Jane Smiley to take a very different tack. Her approach to telling a story that spans generations is simply to write a hundred chapters, over three volumes, describing the events in a family starting in 1920 with one chapter for each year . . .
Early Warning, opens where the last one left off, in 1953. This is a world of women with big hair and girdles who smoke while breastfeeding. You'll recognise them and their homes and their whisky-drinking husbands from Mad Men, of which this is the epic literary cousin . . . While the men's lives revolve around politics, business and sexual insecurity, the women are having a rather interesting time discovering psychoanalysis, contraception and feminism. The changing world of childrearing, as Doctor Spock gives way to Penelope Leach, is especially amusing to read about with the benefit of hindsight, but no less moving for it, as each mother tries her best to do and feel all the things expected of her.
Smiley is a writer who, in a long career spanning work in almost every genre, has always made sure the reader is having a good time . . . Her most famous novel, the 1991 Pulitzer-winning A Thousand Acres, which transposes King Lear to another Iowan farming family, is in a way the parent of this one, but what she is doing now is even more ambitious (and it takes a writer of quite some calibre to do something more ambitious than rewrite Shakespeare) . . . she succeeds effortlessly and without tricks.
The phrase "a great novelist at the height of her powers" is so overused, but for once here it really is true.