cover image Early Warning

Early Warning

Jane Smiley. Knopf, $26.95 (496p) ISBN 978-0-307-70032-2

Smiley has a big cast to wrangle in the second volume of the Last Hundred Years trilogy, which began with 2014’s Some Luck, and she starts this entry at the funeral of Walter, the Iowa farmer and paterfamilias of volume one. While the Langdons, scattered across New York, Chicago, and California, reunite, readers get a refresher on the family relationships. Covering 1953 to 1986 at a clip of one year per chapter, the focus here is the Cold War and its fallout. This material occasionally feels like the greatest hits of the post-WWII era, with Langdons brushing up against a Kennedy assassination, Jonestown, and Vietnam. And since the post-war baby boom means cousins by the dozens, the cast of characters isn’t as vivid and particular as it was in the knock-out first volume. Still, Smiley keeps you reading; as a writer she is less concerned about individual characters, but still as deft as ever at conveying the ways in which a family develops: some stories carrying on, while others fall away. This isn’t a series you can start in the middle, so pick up Some Luck, ride out the Depression and WWII with Walter, Rosanna, and Frank, then come back to the atom-and-adultery-haunted volume two. (May)