Three Jane Smileys in a year seems a little greedy but once started on The Last Hundred Years Trilogy all thoughts of delayed gratification go out of the window. For those who haven’t yet come across the first two, the trilogy tells the sometimes torturous history of the United States through the story of an Iowan farming family, beginning in 1920 with Some Luck and continuing with Early Warning. Golden Age picks up the Langdons in 1987 and takes them to the imagined end of Smiley’s century. Impossible not to refer back to the first two so if you haven’t read them yet, you may want to look away now.
Golden Age opens with a reunion to welcome the new member of the family we learnt about at the end of Early Warning. The second generation is well into middle age. Now a wealthy man, Frank’s interest in the family farm has been reinvigorated by his correspondence with his nephew Jesse whose scientific approach chimes more with Frank’s than with his father Joe’s. Henry is a professor in Chicago still studying medieval literature although beginning to shift his focus. Arthur, now retired, is still inconsolable after the loss of Lillian, and Claire has regained her independence after her divorce, taking up a job as a buyer in a Chicago department store. As the novel progresses, the next generation moves seamlessly into the spotlight – Richie becomes involved in national politics; his volatile twin Michael strides around the financial world; Jesse takes over the farm, eager to test his theories, while Charlie attaches himself to the green movement – before focussing on their own children. The trilogy comes to a close with two events, both of which will draw the family together again in a world very different from the one in which it opened.
Just as with Some Luck and Early Warning, Golden Age felt a little slow to get off the ground for me but once it does it’s hard to put it aside. Smiley cleverly uses a family reunion to reacquaint us with the Langdon family, wisely choosing not to follow all their many offspring. References to events in the previous novels are deftly woven in – useful reminders for those of us who’ve read them and context for those who haven’t. Historical events and social change are reflected and refracted through the characters’ lives: we see the devastation wreaked by AIDs on Henry’s friends; Michael is caught up in the increasing lunacy of the financial markets; the terrible repercussions of the Iraq war come home to roost; climate change and its effects are seen through the farm and in Richie’s half-hearted attempts to influence policy-making. Cultural and historical references are lightly handled – British readers might be amused at Richie’s reaction to a BBC report of the 1987 storm which raged through the South East: ‘didn’t they know what a tornado was?’ There are some surprising omissions – if there was a mention of Katrina I missed it which seemed a little odd given the novel’s emphasis on climate change, likewise the seemingly endless sex scandals in the Catholic church – but that’s a small quibble. Politicians are often talked of in terms of legacy – The Last Hundred Years Trilogy is undoubtedly Smiley’s: assured, thought-provoking, magisterial and a damn fine story. You could read Golden Age as a standalone novel but I can’t imagine why you’d want to deprive yourself of the first two.