Golden Age, the third and final volume of Jane Smiley’s splendid The Last Hundred Years trilogy, opens during a 1987 family reunion at the Langdon family farm in Iowa. Gathered are the surviving children and a number of grandchildren of Walter and Rosanna Langdon, the progenitors and subject of the trilogy’s first volume, Some Luck, which began in 1923. By this point, readers know intimately many of these characters and are familiar with the affections and antagonisms that bind and separate parents and children, aunts and uncles, husband and wives, brothers, sisters and cousins. These ups and downs only proliferate as the story unfolds, until this final episode concludes in 2019. A long-alienated husband and wife find a surprising, loving accommodation late in their marriage, for example, and the love-hate relationship of twin brothers Michael, a high-flying venture capitalist, and Richie, a well-intentioned congressman, goes completely off the rails.
These problematic familial relationships are explored with biting intelligence, great narrative skill, good humor and generosity of spirit. In fact, her humanely realized characters are what make these novels so addictive. But the Langdons never live outside of American history. They are increasingly urban, urbane and politically and socially sophisticated. The family farm is constantly under threat from a trend toward agriculturally destructive but economically advantageous factory farms, and climate change puts arable land in play for international investors. But for Smiley the demise of rural life, of small-town community relationships, has environmental and political consequences. In her final chapters, Smiley offers a warning about America’s future.
As with the previous volumes in the trilogy, Smiley devotes a chapter to each year. With an increasing number of grandchildren and great grandchildren, this requires an astonishing facility for stage management. Smiley makes compelling narrative choices, and Golden Age reverberates with shocks and surprises. So in the end, Smiley’s title for this final volume feels ironic. Looking back over 100 years of Langdon family struggles and recognizing our nostalgia for an imagined American past, a reader may wonder: Has America seen the last of its Golden Age?