Monday, December 31, 2012

Book Review: "The Age Of Grief"

The Age of GriefThe Age of Grief by Jane Smiley

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


This book consists of five short stories and a novella. First, let me state the obvious: that Jane Smiley, who won a Pulitzer for "A Thousand Acres" can really write. Her grasp of what really goes on at the heart of relationships, and within people in the course of their daily lives, is remarkable. These stories explore connections between friends, parents and children, and men and women. I will say that the stories all tend toward the down side. While there is genuine truth here, I think she shortchanged joy, which is just as real and present in our connections as is pain.

I admired and enjoyed four of the five short stories. In "The Pleasure Of Her Company", a woman's friendship with her new neighbors isn't exactly what it seems to be, or what she thinks it is. To me, this was the best of the bunch.

In "Lily", a beautiful but lonely woman plans to ask her friends--a married couple--why they think she can't find love, only to discover that they aren't the ones to ask.

"Long Distance" concerns a single man visiting family-centered relatives at holiday time. It's really keenly observed. "Dynamite" is about a very rare bird, a female bomber. It was written pre-Oklahoma City and makes a creepy read indeed, today.

The only one of the short stories that I didn't care for was called "Jeffrey, Believe Me", about a woman who gets her gay male friend high and manages to seduce him and become pregnant. It all seemed surreal, unlikely, and silly to me.

The title novella concerns a married couple who have three young daughters and who share a thriving dental practice. The story is told through his eyes. He comes to believe that his wife has been having an affair, which has subsequently ended. He goes to insane lengths not to give her the chance to tell him in so many words. Personally, I felt his fearful, angry emotional remove was worse than anything she may or may not have done. All five characters are richly depicted, and all of them except the narrator ring absolutely true. Him, I couldn't quite believe, and I thought, not for the first time, that it is a tricky business to write cross-gender fiction; that is, men writing women or women writing men. I found it hard to spend as long as I had to, inside this man's head. Four stars, on the whole.



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5 comments:

hedgewitch said...

Years ago, I once read The Greenlanders, by Smiley, and I agree, she is about as good as a writer gets at character, but she is also very heavy on the negative aspects of human experience, even perhaps working from a profound belief in our ultimate futility. Of course, in that book she's dealing with the slow horrible death of a colony in a frozen and inhospitable land, in a primitive era. Still, from this review, I'd say she hasn't changed much. Thanks for the look at her current work.

Kim Nelson said...

I'm a long-time fan of Smiley. I will pick this up... or rather, download it! Did you read her HuffPo piece after Sandy Hook? Smart, doable ideas dealing with guns. Happy New Year, Shay!

Sioux said...

Thanks, Shay. I've never read anything by Smiley, never even heard of her. I'm curious...how do you find the time to read AND write so regularly? Oh that's right, you don't write your poems, your spirits do. ;)

I just finished Picoult's "Lone Wolf." I would recommend it. It was a good read.

Shay--have a great New Year's Eve and New Year...

Mama Zen said...

I can't remember having read any of her work. I'll give this a look.

Carrie Burtt said...

Just popped by to say Happy New Year Shay! Love your new blog look! :-)