In 1966, Jess Clark, one of the Clarks’ children, is drafted to fight in the Vietnam War. In the end, he’s gone for thirteen years. The narrator gets word of a homecoming party for Jess in the spring of 1979, when she runs into Loren Clark at the local bank. As Loren and the narrator talk, they discuss several important things. The narrator’s mother has passed away, something of which Jess has been informed. The narrator also learns that Jess is unmarried, and has no children—he is, seemingly, exactly the same as when he left in 1966.
Here, we’re introduced to Jess Clark—and it’s significant that when we first met Jess, we learn that he left home and didn’t come back for 13 years. (The implication of this passage, as we’ll later learn, is that Jess was a draft-dodger—during the Vietnam War thousands of young American citizens fled the country rather than fight in the war). Ginny’s mother (Mrs. Cook, as we later learn) has died, and Mrs. Cook’s death might symbolize the overwhelming patriarchy of Zebulon County: strong maternal characters are mostly absent from the novel.
On Valentine’s Day (a few weeks before the narrator’s meeting with Loren), Rose is diagnosed with breast cancer at the age of 34. As a result, the narrator spends much of March and April cooking and cleaning for her entire family. The narrator cooks for her father, who lives alone now that his wife is dead. She also cooks for Rose and her husband, Pete, and for herself and her own husband, Tyler. She works long, hard days, often waking up at five am.
Rose, Ginny’s sister, is diagnosed with breast cancer, and Ginny spends a lot of her time taking care of Rose, and cooking for her. Smiley conveys the difficulty of her narrator’s life: although she does cooking and cleaning (traditionally feminine work) instead of farm work (traditionally reserved for a man), she works just as hard as any man.
In the fall of 1978, Rose decides to send her two children, Pammy and Linda, to a boarding school. Pammy and Linda don’t want to leave their home, but Rose insists that they do so. The narrator is devastated by this news, since Pammy and Linda are like her own children. The narrator has tried and failed to have children before. She had a miscarriage shortly after Linda was born, and as a result, she was always very close with Linda. Following Rose’s diagnosis, the narrator throws herself into caring for Rose, and sends food to Linda and Pammy. By May of 1979, at the time when the narrator is preparing for Jess Clark’s return, Rose’s health is starting to improve: she’s undergone a mastectomy, and regained some of her strength.
The passage parallels the fertility of the Zebulon County soil (it’s good farmland and bears a lot of crops) with Ginny’s infertility: she’s been unable to have a child, despite trying for a long time. Perhaps as a result, Ginny feels a deep attachment to her niece, almost as if she (Linda) were Ginny’s own child. Part of Smiley’s goal is re-writing Shakespeare’s King Lear (the source text for her novel) from a feminine perspective, and so it’s important to note all the physical, biological details we’ve learned about the female characters: they suffer from distinctly female problems, such as miscarriage and breast cancer, and these complications reject the idea that the female characters are either wholly good or wholly evil, as they are in Lear.
The narrator attends a huge pig roast at the Clarks’ farm, held to celebrate Jess’s return. The narrator notices the differences between Jess and his brother, Loren. Both are handsome and have similar mannerisms, but Jess hasn’t aged as clearly as has Loren: Jess seems young, energetic, and utterly alien to the conventions of life on a farm. At the same time, Jess’s face is rougher and less friendly.
Jess and Loren are the novel’s counterparts to Edgar and Edmund, the two brothers (one good, one evil) in King Lear. Once again the ideas of good and evil are complicated in Smiley’s retelling, as Jess, the counterpart to the evil Edmund, will be a more sympathetic and inscrutable character in the novel. Jess seems like a likable, charismatic man: in part, his charisma seems to come from the fact that he’s a stranger; he’s not as tied to the land as the rest of his family, and his appearance seems to hide something that the other characters don’t have.
Jess greets Rose and the narrator and gives them both a hug. As they chat, they see a car pulling up to the house. Out of the car step Tyler, Pete, and–unexpectedly—Caroline. When the group walks through the door, Caroline doesn’t walk toward the narrator and Jess. The narrator explains to Jess that Caroline is living in Des Moines, where she’s planning to get married to a young lawyer, Frank. Jess seems amused and happy with this news. Together, he, the narrator, and Rose reminisce about their lives on the farm. Rose tells Jess that nothing has changed—their parents are still stubborn, old-fashioned, and subtly competitive. Jess addresses the narrator as Ginny.
This passage is important for a number of reasons. First, we learn the narrator’s name for the first time: Ginny. (Note that her name starts with a “G,” like her corresponding character Goneril in King Lear, and following the pattern of the rest of the characters: Larry as Lear, Rose as Regan, and Caroline as Cordelia.) Second, the passage shows the first interaction, or rather, non-interaction between Ginny and Caroline. Caroline, the youngest daughter of the family, is also the most independent of the three daughters: she doesn’t live at home anymore, and seems disconnected from her sisters. Third, the passage emphasizes the static nature of life on the farm.
Ginny asks Jess where he’s been living, and what he’s been doing with his life. Jess explains that he lived in Seattle and, “before the amnesty,” in Vancouver. He went to Vancouver, he explains, as soon as he was finished with infantry training. He’s not sure if his father knows that he is a deserter. Ginny explains to Jess that she’s been married to Tyler Smith (or Ty, as she calls him) since she was nineteen. After seventeen years, she still loves him very much, she thinks to herself. Tyler is five years her senior, and very well mannered. He gets along well with Ginny’s father, in contrast to Pete Lewis, Rose’s husband, who often quarrels with Ginny’s father.
Here, it’s revealed that Jess was a draft-dodger (“amnesty” is the key word, plus the fact that Jess was in Canada, a haven for draft-dodgers), and that he’s seemingly kept this fact a secret from his father. The passage is also important for expository reasons, as Ginny explains her recent life to Jess (while also explaining it to us, the readers). The passage also contrasts Pete and Tyler, the two son-in-laws (corresponding to the Dukes of Cornwall and Albany in King Lear), in terms of how well they get along with Larry Cook (Ginny and Rose’s father). This reinforces the idea that Larry is in some ways a center of life in this small community.
Tyler arrives at the party, and greets Jess warmly. The last time Tyler and Jess talked, Ginny thinks, Tyler seems far more mature. Now, it seems, Tyler and Jess are equally old and experienced. Abruptly, Caroline walks up to Jess and greets him, shaking his hand with a strange, impersonal formality. Ginny has thought about their interaction at the party many times, she notes, always wondering if it could have gone some other way. She’s always concluded that there was no way to “do things differently from the way they got done.”
The tensions in the Cook family are now much clearer than they were in the first chapter: Caroline is literally and metaphorically distanced from the rest of the family, though it’s not clear why. By describing life as a series of inevitabilities, Ginny seems to be responding to her imprisoned lifestyle and seemingly predetermined fate. She still lives on her father’s farm after all these years, and seems incapable of breaking away, so she feels powerless.