Smiley takes the framework of William Shakespeare’s famous tragedy, King Lear, and twists it to present a uniquely 20th-century story of family, loyalty, betrayal, and destruction.
In Shakespeare’s play, Lear decides to abdicate his throne and divide his kingdom among his three daughters, but first he poses a test of their love to him. The oldest daughters play along and flatter him, but the youngest daughter refuses to play and tells him that she loves him exactly as she should love him, no more no less. Lear cuts her out of the kingdom.
Subsequently his two older daughters treat him horribly and Lear slowly descends into madness while his kingdom is torn apart.
In Smiley’s version, it’s a 1000-acre farm in Iowa instead of a kingdom, but the structure is similar. Larry, the family patriarch wants to incorporate the farm and split the shares among his three daughters to avoid inheritance taxes. His youngest daughter, Caroline, who has left the farm already to become an attorney, expresses doubt about the wisdom of the proposal and Larry cuts her out entirely. But the same descent into madness and destruction of the farm occurs.
The big difference is that in Shakespeare, the oldest daughters, Goneril and Regan, are the villains and Lear and Cordelia are sympathetic characters. In Smiley’s novel, the tables are turned. Ginny and Rose are the long-suffering daughters of Larry’s abuse and Caroline is seen as a selfish out-of-touch interloper. Larry’s the villain.
Even if you don’t know the Shakespeare play, this novel is wonderful and stands alone. But knowing the Lear story adds more layers of meaning and enjoyment to the experience of reading Smiley’s masterpiece. Don’t miss this one.