This is an engaging family history, and the way an unsympathetic character mellows is well done. However, the fact that Buck's parents were missionaries is demonstrated by a dated writing style that is reminiscent of the King James Bible. Although not preachy in content, I found the tone increasingly incongruous and irritating, though I was still keen to read to the end of the story.
It tells of Wang Lung's life from young adulthood till old age, in rural China before the second world war, though the protagonists are only vaguely aware of distant upheavals. He is a peasant farmer, in need of a wife, but without the means to be an attractive prospect. He marries an unattractive slave from the big Hwang house (local landowners) and it is one of his best decisions: O-lan is skilled, shrewd, very hardworking, loyal and deferential. He becomes proud of her, and this raises his ambitions. As they have some success, the permeation of the Biblical language makes the reader expect a fall.
As the title implies, land is at the heart of the book and is Wang Lung's true love. He is a farmer who lives for the land and from it, and whatever the ups and downs of his life, he never loses that deep bond. He is nourished by it in every sense and is lost when he is unable to tend it, whether through drought, flood or old age. "It was true that all their lives depended upon the earth." When he has a little silver, he is conscious that it came from the earth so naturally having more land is "the desire of his heart". He even uses earth to hide silver that is not invested in land. "It is the end of a family - when they begin to sell the land. No one can rob you of land." (Sadly untrue in Communist China.) Land is also his escape, "as was his wont when the affairs of his house became too deep for him, he took a hoe and he went to his fields".
Wang Lung is a man of his time and place, so he is autocratic and sees girls as a worthless burden or commodity - and yet he does love his disabled daughter ("poor fool") and, sometimes, care for his wife (though he never fully appreciates all that she does for him). As the book progresses, Buck is keen to contrast Wang Lung's darker side with his gentler one, "he was a man so soft-hearted that he could not kill an ox" and who buys a starving child as a slave, but pets and protects her. Such instances are all the more poignant because they seem slightly transgressive in his world.
Although Wang Lung's love of the land never diminishes, in later sections, the quest for domestic peace within his extended family is a more significant driving force than the quest for land, yet this doesn't derail the narrative or change the characters in an implausible way.
The other, far odder, change in the final third or so is that suddenly most of the characters develop the habit of prefacing almost everything they said with "Well, and". I haven't run a word count, but it suddenly became very noticeable, and remained so, in a way that was distracting and increasingly annoying.
Biblical notes: Here is a passage that sounded very like a New Testament parable:
"'Sell me the little parcel of land that you have and leave your lonely house and come into my house and help me with my land.' And X did this and was glad to do so."
In another section, sex with a prostitute proves unfulfilling in a way that was very reminiscent of Jesus telling the woman at the well that if she drank the water of life she would not be thirsty again.