Personal Blurb-style Intro (aka “Why I picked up this book”): To be honest, the cover represented a nice, relaxing book to read by the pool, and that is what attracted me to the book. I choose the book as a “light read” in between other “serious” books. What a joke! Ms. Smiley writes complex characters with heavy dialogue and heady interactions. The thick chapters and weighty topics were not burdensome when paired with Smiley’s enticing characters.
Friends and family spontaneously gather at the home of a fading Hollywood director. He and his live-in girlfriend host children, grandparents and long-time friends over the course of ten days. During that time, the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq begins and this event anchors many conversations in the rambling house in the hills. An opportunity to change locations (yet still stay in the hills) affords the group new material for the continuous bickering, debating and laughing routines they have established among themselves.
As a whole, I found this book to be challenging and thought-provoking. Jane Smiley is clearly an intelligent and gifted writer and she portrays compelling characters that exude stereotype without becoming cliche. Just when I thought I had deduced Smiley’s pattern, she would insert a twist or provide an inspiring moment to distract me from my predictions.
While the book pulled me along, I cannot bring myself to recommend it strongly nor to recommend you avoid it. I had the chance to dig into this book for three hours the first time I started reading it and I think that helped me enjoy it more. I created a strong visual space for each of the characters and I was able to follow the subtle character development that Smiley showed over ten days. My emotions were aroused as I read and at times when I was bored with a character, rather than being bored with the book, I still felt more alive for the time I spent reading. While I can’t say that I will revisit this book, I am interested in reading more of Smiley’s work.
“You know that there are people whose job it is to know more about this than you do and that they think this is a regrettable necessity, right?”
“I’ve heard that rumor, but I question their motives. If their motives are humane, I question their logic. If their logic is reasonable, I question their worldview and their right to impose their worldview on the lives and bodies of others.”
“Then, honey, you question the nature of civilization.”
“And you don’t?”
“Cars were wonderful philosophical things, zones of privacy and occasions for cooperation. There was something especially fine, she thought, in world-historical terms, about a car belonging to a stranger whom you had never seen before moving into the left lane in order to allow you onto the freeway. There was something politically beautiful about four cars at a four-way intersection smoothly taking their turns. Good traffic made you a benevolent person and a believer in basic human goodness.”
“”But you asked me why I still care. It was the agressive, open gloating. It was more than a lack of shame. Not only were we supposed to acknowledge that they had the power, we were supposed to admire the idea of cheating as a method of attaining power. They preened themselves upon being corrupt and morally bankrupt. If he had gone to his inauguration and said, ‘I know I cheated, and I know most of you didn’t elect me, and I know I am indifferent to all issues of right and wrong as they apply to me personally, but I’m here and I plan to make the most of it.’ I wouldn’t be so angry.”
Max laughed. The fact was, there was an element of delight that he felt about everything she said. But he tried to speak seriously: “I always think it’s funny that the main thing you want is for them to see themselves as you see them, when that’s exactly the very thing that they can’t do. Honey, you’re never going to get that from anyone. It doesn’t matter who they are, they get to have the one thing, their own point of view.””
“In that moment, Paul decided once again that family life was, in general, something to be avoided, except as an occasion for exercising patience.”
“Max drew in a deep and, to Stoney, threatening breath, and said, “Stoney, are you telling me the truth?”
Stoney sat silent for what he considered to be a long moment, pondering this question. Questions about the truth worried him, because of course he didn’t know what the truth was. His own true feelings were always confused, he had no access to any general truths, and if you said you were telling the truth, you laid yourself open to all sorts of contradictions that would ultimately confuse you even further. Whenever “the truth” came up, it was often as a prelude to a lengthy and usually contentious discussion.”
“She had dived into the deep end, where the virgin’s hair swirled into the tail of the unicorn, and in the middle of her second lap had realized that in fact she was precisely different from the person her father thought she was by the measure of Stoney’s influence. It was scientific. Here would be Max’s wish, that a young man and she would be equally idealistic and optimistic, and they would be just self-centered enough so that they would set out confidently to save the world, or some part of it, African felines or babies suffering from malnutrition and dehydration, and they would work out a plan and start a family, no knowing any better, and their life would become a fait accompli before they realized how hard it was, and then, after they realized that, they would do as everyone else does, wake up from their idealism and go on to achieve what they could.”
Book website: Jane Smiley’s website.