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La casa delle tre sorelle
di Jane Smiley
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First edition , fine
Depressing -- it's as if the author took every possible type of dysfunctionality and poured it into one family. But I liked her writing; I appreciated several unexpected twists and revelations, and the ending was a bit of a surprise. Pretty good read.
A dysfunctional Iowa farming family falls apart when the patriarch decides to leave his thousand-acre property to two of his three daughters. His mental state deteriorates. Family infighting ensues. A neighbor’s son, who had gone to Canada to avoid the Vietnam draft, returns to the area and develops relationships with two women. It is set in 1979, a time when family farming was becoming increasingly difficult.
Protagonist Ginny, eldest of three sisters, is the narrator. She is married with no children. Her mother died at an early age and she has had to play a motherly role in her sisters’ lives. It is not a cheery story. Several female characters have experienced abuse. The writing is eloquent. It is character driven and none of the characters is particularly likeable. The plot is about a farming life and the relationships among the characters.
I liked the first half of the story better than the second. This book is a retelling of King Lear. It is not essential to know ahead of time in order to enjoy it; however, if I had figured it out sooner, some of the plot transitions, which seem to come out of the blue, would have made more sense.
This book won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1992. I am slowly making my way through Jane Smiley’s catalogue. My favorite remains The All True Travels and Adventures of Lidie Newton, which I highly recommend.
A Thousand Acres is a takeoff on King Lear, where a farmer who has three daughters, of whom the youngest is his favorite, in a drunken spell signs over his farm to his daughters, and when the youngest one questions it, he says fine! and signs it over to the two older ones. Then comes a spell of uncertainty (when he's sober), where he begins to talk about and act like the two daughters are taking the farm away from him, taking advantage of him.
Something I hated about this book was the way they used animals. They were hog farmers. In the first part of the book, Prodigal son (Jeff), the protagonist's neighbor, comes back from his self-imposed exile to canada, being against the draft, and his father (Harold) puts on a "pig roast," to celebrate and invites the neighbors.
After the father (Larry) declares his intention to leave his farm, his thousand acres, to his two older daughters and their husbands, a get together is planned at the Larry's house, where all the documents are laid out on the table, and neighbors are coming over and slapping Larry on the back. They start talking about a bigger hog operation; there had always been a competition between the Larry and Harold, his neighbor. The lawyer and the banker are there, and the lawyer is urging patience on the signing.
"Ken said, 'let's just wait a bit longer, Larry.' And he looked out the front door, and so did i, and here came carolyn, across the road from rose's, up the porch steps. At that sight, I gave up my last reservations [she had been urging Caroline to reconcile with their father], felt a thrust of real confidence, so when she stepped onto the porch, composing herself to be conciliatory - I could see that - I opened the door for her. but my father stepped around me and took the door in his hand and slammed it shut in her face, and then he whirled Ken around with a hand on his arm, and said, 'now.' We went into the dining room. When I had finished signing things, I sneaked out onto the porch and look towards rose's across the road. Carolyn's Honda was nowhere to be seen."
Ginnie, the protagonist, recognizes the way men cannot share their sadness with each other, the way women do:
".. I would have said that certainly Rose [who had suffered breast cancer] and I had suffered, too, and Carolyn and Mary Livingstone and all the women I knew, but there seemed to be a dumb, unknowing quality to the way the men had suffered, as if, like animals, it was not possible for them to gain perspective on their suffering. They had us, Rose and me, in their suffering, but they didn't seem to have what we had with each other, a kind of ongoing narrative and commentary about what was happening that grew out of our conversations, our rolled eyes, our sighs and jokes and irritated remarks. The result for us was that we found ourselves more or less prepared for the blows that fell - we could at least make that oddly comforting remark, 'I knew all along something like this was going to happen.' The men, and Pete in particular [Rose's husband, who had been a talented musician before he married into the family], always seemed a little surprised, and therefore a little more hurt and a little more damaged, by things that happened - the deaths of prized animals, accidents, my father's blow ups and contempt, forays into commodity trading that lost money, even - for Ty [Ginnie's husband] - my miscarriages. Of course he refused to try anymore. He had counted on each pregnancy as if there were no history."
(Ginnie later finds out that her miscarriages, and indeed Rose's breast cancer, are caused by their drinking the well water, from which nitrates are seeping into.)
Larry drinks everyday. One night, in the middle of the night, Jenny gets a call and she and I have to go pick up her father at the hospital. He went drunk driving and had a wreck in his truck. He doesn't say a word, neither to the medical professionals coming north to Jenny and ty when they pick him up. On the way back driving him home, Jenny suddenly realizes that she's sick and tired of being a patient dumb animal, thinking that if she's just wait and he's patient, everything will come right. She starts to let her father have it:
" . . . 'daddy!'
His eyes had been closed, but now they popped open. He lifted himself in the seat with a grunt. Ty's head swiveled toward me.
'I know you're hurt, and I'm sorry you got in an accident, but now's the time to talk about it. You're going to be in real trouble pretty soon, when the state troopers come over. You've got to take this to heart. You simply can't drive all over creation, and you especially can't do it when you're drinking. It's not right. You could kill somebody. Or kill yourself, for that matter.' "
She goes on and on, but he doesn't say anything. we later find out that her father never does go to jail for that DUI.
The father never stops being an asshole, he never stops drinking, and one night, he steals Pete's truck and drives off. Ty and Pete go looking for him, and Rose stays at Ginnie's house, where she brings up their father molesting them as teenagers. Up until this point, Ginnie has no memory of this.
" 'He went into your room. I watched him.'
'maybe I was asleep. Maybe he was just thinking about it and decided not to do it for some reason. Maybe you were prettier.'
'that's not the way it works. I've read a little about it. Prettier doesn't make any difference. You were as much his as I was. There was no reason for him to assert his possession of me more than his possession of you. We were just his, to do with as he pleased, like the pond or the houses or the hogs or the crops. Carolyn was his, too. That's why I don't know about her.' "
This is where we realize why Rose has sent her two daughters to boarding school. Before this, I just thought she was a cold mother. She was afraid her father would molest her daughters.
One day Harold is driving his big fancy tractor, when something is wrong with an intake valve or whatever, he gets down off the tractor, and tries to adjust a rubber tube, when it comes loose and sprays anhydrous ammonia into his face, which instantly blinds him. he reaches for where he knows the water tank on the tractor is, but it's empty.
When Ginnie finds out about it, she goes over to Rose's house to tell her about it. Rose seems unaffected about it, and Ginnie is puzzled about this until she explains:
" . . . 'When they suffer, then they're convinced they're innocent again. Don't you think Hitler was afraid and in pain when he died? Do you care? If he died thinking his cause was just and right, that all those Jews and everybody deserve to be exterminated, that at least he lived long enough to perform his life's work, wouldn't you have enjoyed his pain and wished him more? There has to be remorse. There has to be making amends to the ones you destroyed, otherwise the books are never balanced.'
'But this is Harold, not daddy.'
'But what's the difference? You know what Jess told me? Once Harold was driving the cornpicker, when Jess was a boy, and there was a faun lying in the corn, and Harold drove right over it rather than leave the row standing, or turn, or even just stop and Chase it away.'
'Well, maybe he didn't see it.'
'But after he drove over it, he didn't stop to kill it, either. He just let it die.' "
Jess is fucki Ginny and Rose. Rose tells her husband Pete about it, and about a week after that, Pete gets drunk, crosses the road to Harold's house, threatens him with a gun, then gets in his truck and drives it into the quarry, and drowns. And here we have another one of Rose's philosophical commentaries:
" . . . 'shit, Ginny, at the core, they're all like that.'
'we think that because of daddy. If he hadn't - if he had been - '
she sat up and looked at me. 'Say the words, Ginny! If he hadn't fucked us and beat us we would think differently, right?'
'But he did fuck us and he did beat us. He beat us more than he fucked us. He beat us routinely. The thing is, he's respected. Others of them like him and look up to him. He fits right in. However many of them have fucked their daughters or their stepdaughters or their nieces or not, the fact is that they all accept beating as a way of life. We have two choices when we think about that. Either they don't know the real him and we do, or else they do know the real him and the fact that he beat us and fucked us doesn't matter. Either they themselves are evil, or they're stupid. That's the thing that kills me. This person who beats and fucks his own daughters can go out into the community and get respect and power, and take it for granted that he deserves it.' "
Ginny walks out on Ty One night, without taking anything with her, except for the $1,000 that she told Ty she needed, and moves to the big city and gets a job as a waitress, and rents a cheap apartment. Rose's cancer returns, and she dies, and Ginny takes Rose's daughters to live with her.
Ty comes to see Ginny at the restaurant where she works one day and tells her he's leaving to go to texas. He gave it all up, after he got so far in debt.
"Carolyn and I did share a legacy, our $34,000 tax bill on the sale of the properties. Carolyn paid her half, I was told. About my half, the IRS and I have an agreement. I work extra hours, and they don't press Pam and Linda for money. I pay $200 a month, every month, and I think of it as my 'regret money,' and though what I am regretful for mutates and evolves, I am glad to pay it, the only Mortgage I will ever be given. they have calculated that I will have my regret paid off in 14 years, and maybe by that time I will know what it is. At any rate, regret is part of my inheritance."
The book takes place in iowa, in the mid 20th century, and reminds me somewhat of my grandpa boling, my maternal grandfather, who was a tenant farmer on a tiny bit of land in rural Missouri, outside of Kansas city. They were dirt poor, and he had lost his chance to get some land in Iowa when my grandma had a miscarriage with her first baby, and wanted to move back to Missouri to be near her family.
My grandpa seemed a very Stern, somewhat bitter, stoic man, who had some Indian in him. They were Southern baptists, and any fun, even drinking coffee was a sin and God forbid that you used the lord's name in vain or even say damn. Sex outside of marriage was a sin and was not to be mentioned. My mother passed on very much of this mindset, though she converted to Catholicism to marry my father. Very sad stuff.
Holy Moly, this book is like Wendell Berry married into the family in Succession. It's a wild tale of who will inherit the 1000 acres of the family farm, and the toxic despot of a father who doesn't want to let it go. I can't remember a book I've read with such beautiful characterization -- Smiley is such an astute observer of human nature. The book is simply a perfect novel.
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Does this sound familiar?
At the opening of Jane Smiley's latest novel, "A Thousand Acres," the narrator, a woman named Virginia Cook Smith, describes the farm in Zebulon County, Iowa, that she and her two younger sisters, Rose and Caroline, have grown up on: "Paid for, no encumbrances, as flat and fertile, black, friable and exposed as any piece of land on the face of the earth."
And then comes the shock of recognition. In 1979, the three sisters' father, Laurence (Larry) Cook, decides to form a corporation out of his farm holdings and give each of his daughters a third of it. What do they think of the plan? "It's a good idea," says the oldest, who is called Ginny. "It's a great idea," says the second daughter, Rose. "I don't know," says the youngest, Caroline, who is a lawyer.
"You don't want it, my girl, you're out," says Larry to Caroline. "It's as simple as that." So the farm is divided into two instead of three, with Ginny and Rose to take turns looking after Larry. And a tragedy of ingratitude, madness and generational conflict begins. . . .
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Wikipedia in inglese (1)
A successful Iowa farmer decides to divide his farm between his three daughters. When the youngest objects, she is cut out of his will. This sets off a chain of events that brings dark truths to light and explodes long-suppressed emotions. An ambitious reimagining of Shakespeare's King Lear cast upon a typical American community in the late twentieth century, A Thousand Acres takes on themes of truth, justice, love, and pride, and reveals the beautiful yet treacherous topography of humanity.
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Sistema Decimale Melvil (DDC)813.54 — Literature English (North America) American fiction 20th Century 1945-1999
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