A review of Lucky by Jane Smiley

Reviewed by Ruth Latta

by Jane Smiley
Random House
April 2024, Paperback, 560 pages, ISBN-13: 978-0593862773

On the flyleaf of Jane Smiley’s new book, Lucky, one reads that it is :“…a  soaring, soulful novel about a folk musician who rises to fame across our changing times.”  Smiley, the Pulitzer Prizewinning author of thirty-two books, has mentioned, in Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Novel (2005) that with each new work, she tries a different literary form as a challenge of craft. A Thousand Acres, for instance, is a modern retelling of King Lear from a feminist point-of-view.  The All-True Travels and Adventures of Lidie Newton is picaresque historical fiction.  Duplicate Keys, to name another  example, is a murder mystery.

The flyleaf description of Lucky suggests that Smiley has now adopted the form of celebrity autobiography. One anticipates a tale of hard-won stardom hampered by personal demons. Instead, the first person narrator/protagonist, Jodie Rattler, is a calm, grounded person who feels that she has always been lucky, starting with her childhood winnings of $5,986 when her uncle lets her place a bet on a horse:

Even when I was six, I knew we were lucky, because I heard my relatives talk about where they had lived before,” Jodie says. “Every one of then acted like they had been stranded and then rescued and brought to St. Louis to recover.

Jodie is blessed by the presence of a loving mother and extended family in a comfortable, safe neighbourhood.  She  proves to be luckier than her mom, who was once an  aspiring singer/actor in New York. There she secured steady employment, but fell in love with Jodie’s father, a married man who wouldn’t get a divorce but bought her and Jodie a house in St. Louis, Missouri.

Jodie seems to define luck as  the freedom to grow and create. She grows up in an atmosphere of music, including family sing-alongs; music camps; her mother’s summer theatre work; the highschool junior chorus, and her teenage cousin’s band, “The Big Muddies.” At university, through a friend, she meets a music promoter who likes her singing and records two of her songs for a major label.  They  lead to performances at concerts, and generate a solid nest-egg, invested by her uncle.

While Jodie admires the “four J’s” of 1960’s and ‘70s folk rock music: Joni Mitchell, Janis Joplin, Judy Collins and Joan Baez, she never achieves their kind of renown and perhaps doesn’t aspire to it.  Rather than feeling driven to succeed, she enjoys being a working singer-songwriter and receiving some recognition and remuneration. She avoids the self-destructive behaviours that have killed many artists before their time.  As she tells her prospective father-in-law, she is “risk averse”; indeed, among the risks she avoids are permanent romantic involvements.

Jodie claims the same rights that men have always had: control of her own finances, reproductive choice, and a “free and exploratory” sex life.  She has three models of what to avoid, one being her mother, whose loneliness led her to alcoholism. An aunt, a pampered wife with a generous husband, may be the unacknowledged brain behind his business success.  The third example is Jodie’s almost mother-in-law, to whom marriage brought isolation, loneliness and obedience.

In her early twenties, Jodie goes to England to research historic folk music, and has a romance with Martin, who is working in a pub in order to meet people outside his social circle. “Nothing in my past had taught me what love was,” she says. “He treated my body like a wonder he had never felt before.”

Martin’s parents, Lord and Lady Leighmor, live in a stately home on a large property which they do not bother to farm, as his lordship is an investor. According to his son, Martin, “he wants the Tories to keep everything in the UK exactly the way it has always been…Terribly afraid of the thin edge of the wedge.”  Although the parents treat Jodie kindly, she fears becoming trapped in the family’s way of life, and dumps Martin when she senses he is about to propose marriage.

Though Jodie enjoys a number of affairs, the most important things in her life are her family and her music; indeed, she feels that the urge to make music justifies the existence of the human race, “a bunch of mammals that didn’t deserve the power they claimed and often misused it, sometimes to the point of earthly destruction.” Music gives us a sense of our immortality as a species, a sense that “the beat goes on.”

Smiley’s underlying theme, however, is the precariousness of this immortality. While presenting Jodie’s maturation  as a woman and artist, she  quietly notes some major historic events of the passing era. These world events are unobtrusive, popping up in the way that a child,  teenager, and busy young adult might notice them. In the last quarter of the novel, however, large-scale, troublesome matters impinge more conspicuously and lead to a disturbing ending.


As a child, Jodie notices that “some people are luckier than others.” In her neighbourhood, big elegant houses are mixed with small badly-maintained ones.  In the mid-50’s, her young Black playmates are prohibited from using the public parks and libraries. Jodie was frightened by the prospect of nuclear annihilation at the time of the Cuban missile crisis (1962) when she was twelve.  She takes a long time, however, to develop a political consciousness, although she plays for benefits and gives to charity.  In the U.S. presidential election of 2000, she campaigns for Albert Gore,  one of the first politicians to grasp the seriousness of climate change and to call for a reduction in emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases. His narrow defeat destroys her illusions. Why her long delay?  Jodie’s uncle offers an insightful explanation:

If your parents are decent and you come along during good times, then you can’t help having a positive view of the world, and when some idiot is picked up and put to use by a ruthless bunch, then it takes you a while to wake up.

The novel ends in a 2030s dystopia.  Though the warning signs are there, the positive,  inspiring parts of the novel divert our attention. The heartwarming parts include Jodie’s loving care of her family and her exemplary friendship circle.  The characters’ stories  provide insights, entertainment and a sense of connection between those living now and those who have gone before.  In depicting human beings at their best, Smiley makes her readers aware of all that will be lost if the ending comes true.

About the reviewer: Ruth Latta’s latest novel, “A Striking Woman”, (Ottawa, Baico, 2023, info@baico.ca) is a story of true love and trade union organizing.