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A copy of Jane Smiley's latest, "Lucky," sat in my lap — the last page read, the book closed.

"Well, huh," I thought. "What the heck was that all about?"

I knew what the heck the plot was about: It starts out in 1955. Six-year-old Jodie Rattler's uncle takes her to a racetrack. She sees horses for the first time. Her uncle gives her a piece of paper and asks her to circle some numbers. He hands the paper, along with $6, to a man behind a window. Jodie's uncle wins nearly $6,000 (about $68,000 in 2024 dollars). He gives her $86 of it and swears her to secrecy.

"Don't tell anyone we've been here, or where you got this money. Hide it, save it, and buy something nice someday," he says, and so she does. She stashes it, and over time, Jodie comes to believe the wad of 43 $2 bills is the source of her luck.

How that luck plays out as the years go by and how it aids her singing career — she tends to be in the right place at the right time — makes up the bulk of the book. Jodie writes songs, puts out a few albums, tours, travels (she ends up living for a while in England's delightfully named Nether Wallop) and has love affairs (including with a lord's son). Time passes.

That may sound boring, but it's not. The best part is being privy to Jodie's creative process (including nods to her musical influences, the four J's — Janis Joplin, Joni Mitchell, Judy Collins and Joan Baez) and the life choices she makes along the way. And she always finds the luck, wherever she is, whatever she's doing.

But is she really lucky? Occasionally, she questions her life's path, most especially when it crosses that of "the gawky girl," a high school classmate who is never named but serves as a kind of foil, popping up when Jodie is feeling introspective.

Luck has a habit of running out, of course, particularly in a novel, and I kept waiting for the other shoe to drop. That's what appears to happen in the last 40 pages, when everything changes in such a way it's impossible to talk about without revealing a huge plot twist, if you can even call it that. It segues into an epilogue I'm still struggling to come to terms with, weeks later.


The end seems so unexpected it's hard not to feel cheated. I read those pages again and did some judicious skimming from the beginning. There were hints — oh so subtle ones — I didn't pick up on, leading me to believe my reaction was more about me and my expectations than it was about Smiley as an author. She's not exactly new at this, after all, with umpteen fiction and nonfiction works to her name and a Pulitzer Prize on her shelf.

Even so, I suspect "Lucky" will be polarizing, which may well make it the book club pick of the year.


By: Jane Smiley

Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf, 384 pages, $29.