by Jane Smiley
In the beautifully realized The Age of Grief, Smiley limned the effects of adultery on a husband and wife and their three daughters. In this pair of novellas, she deals again, far less successfully, with betrayal and the disintegration of a family.
In the self-indulgent Ordinary Love, the narrator, a middle-aged woman who “has never questioned the power of desire,” reveals to her adult children the brief affair that ended her marriage and cost her custody of them 20 years earlier. To repay her for the confession, the woman’s elder daughter, Ellen, reveals the horrors of childhood spent with her father, a self-centered research allergist. Ellen’s tale of her father’s neglect, while not pretty, is hardly the horror it’s greeted with by her conscience-stricken mother. She muses in the aggravating way she muses through the entire novella, “I think that I…have given my children the two crudest gifts I had to give, which are these: The experience of perfect family happiness, and the certain knowledge that it could not last.”
In Good Will, Robert Miller, an organic farmer is determined to live a life of total self-sufficiency and simplicity—no car, no phone, no electricity, little money, barter whenever possible—with his wife, Liz, and their 7-year-old son, Tommy. The reasons for the self-imposed asceticism are never made clear. A woman doing a book on innovative gardening comes to interview Liz and Robert and describes the setting “as a kind of paradise from which the Millers can catch sight of the 20th century without having to participate in it.” Too late, Robert learns that there’s trouble in this carefully controlled compost paradise as Tommy begins, in a wholly unbelievable way, to act out his frustrations at living such a minimalist life. The reasons for this are never made clear either. Most readers, fed up with the self-righteous Robert, probably won’t care much anyway. (Knopf, $17.95)