Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Book Review: Ordinary Love & Good Will

Title Ordinary Love & Good Will: Two Novellas
Author Jane Smiley
Genre Literary Fiction
Rating A-

Summaries In Ordinary Love, Smiley tells the story of a family who's matriarch was unfaithful and probes around at the long-lasting effects of that family break-up on the mother and her children. In Good Will, Smiley weaves a tale of a family that lives an unconventional "counter-culture" lifestyle and attempts to look at the effect of that choice on the elementary-aged son.

First Lines (Ordinary Love) "I don't want Joe to find me on my knees, buffing the kitchen floor with an old cotton turtleneck, but he does, and he says, 'Mom! What are you doing? Relax!'"
(Good Will) "During the first part of the interview, when we are sitting on the porch looking down the valley, I try for exactitude more than anything--$343.67."

Reviews Neither of those first lines are particularly illustrative--Smiley never tries to start with a big bang, she's very much a "slow wind-up" kind of writer, but she wrote both of these novellas with her trademarks. Let's dig in, shall we?

Characters: In Ordinary Love, Smiley got a little child-happy (five children) and I had a hard time sorting them out and keeping them straight in my head--two are never even in the story, they're merely referenced by other family members. I say, since this is a short story/novella and you won't have time to fully flesh out five children, their parents, a step mother, grand children, and two other men in the mom's life, cut out all unnecessary characters and make the others more rich. She could have easily lost two of the kids and tightened up the story in my mind. In Good Will, she was sparse and beautiful with the characters. Even with using only one narrator, I understood everybody's motivations in the story. Beautifully done.

Plot: Both novellas had literary-heavy plots (i.e., not a lot of "action"), as is Smiley's style, but they did what they were supposed to do. Both got you thinking about how the decisions of the parents affect the children. Which leads us to...

Themes: I've reviewed one other book by Smiley, the Pulitzer-winning Thousand Acres, which I loved because I am a hard-core sucker for literary fiction about family dynamics and these are two more works in Smiley's cannon that tackle that subject matter quite beautifully. The only problem I have with Smiley, and it seems to be common across all of her writing (including the nonfiction that I read) is that she doesn't know when to stop a good thing. The themes of both these stories were great, but she gets heavy-handed with the exposition at the end and tells you what the protagonist is thinking (i.e., what you should be thinking), and nearly always, it's not what I was thinking and kind of ruins it for me. I like it when a book creates a situation, brings up a theme for me to think about, and then lets me do the thinking. Please, dear authors, do not do all of the thinking for me; don't preach at me--that's what I go to church for. If Smiley had trimmed her exposition down a shade (most definitely in Good Will), this could have been an A+ book.

Finally, Setting: I don't usually go too much into the settings of books, unless it's a big draw-back, but I need to touch on it. Smiley uses the midwest a lot in her books (she's Iowa through and through) and she continues as such in these stories. It wasn't as big of a deal in Ordinary Love--travel is a theme, but not too over-the-top for it to be in your face all the time--but it was critical in Good Will. The Pennsylvania family-run, self-sustaining farm in Good Will was essential, as was it's juxtaposition with the city they lived near, and it was beautiful. She's descriptive and evocative, the farm nearly takes on a life of its own, and she seriously had me considering moving to the country (even though my heart truly yearns for the big city). She did that one very well. Kudos on using setting to enhance the story.

All in all, the over-characterization in the first story and the over-exposition in the second story brought this one down a touch for me, but it won't stop me from reading the four other Smiley novels I have sitting on my TBR book shelf.

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