Books by Jane Smiley

Jane Smiley is the author of numerous novels, including, most recently, Good Faith, as well as a critically acclaimed biography of Charles Dickens. She is the recipient of a Pulitzer Prize and was inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Letters in


MARCH SISTERS by Kate Bolick
NONFICTION
Released: Aug. 27, 2019

"Fresh readings of a much-loved classic."
Louisa May Alcott's fictional sisters still captivate contemporary readers. Read full book review >
RIDING LESSONS by Jane Smiley
CHILDREN'S
Released: March 6, 2018

"A disappointing outing with a lauded author. (Historical fiction. 8-10)"
A young rider named Ellen Leinsdorf takes the reins in this first part of a trilogy set in the same California town as Smiley's series aimed at slightly older readers, the Horses of Oak Valley Ranch. Read full book review >
TWENTY YAWNS by Jane Smiley
CHILDREN'S
Released: April 1, 2016

"Perfect bedtime story for the end of a busy day. (Picture book. 3-6)"
After a day at the beach, Mom, Dad, and Lucy are tired. But when the moon shines through her window, and everything looks mysterious, Lucy is suddenly wide awake. How will she go to sleep? Read full book review >
GOLDEN AGE by Jane Smiley
FICTION & LITERATURE
Released: Oct. 20, 2015

"Despite all the dire events, the narrative energy of masterfully interwoven plotlines always conveys a sense of life as an adventure worth pursuing."
The title is decidedly sardonic, given the number of deaths and disasters Smiley inflicts on the Langdon family and kin in the final volume of her Last Hundred Years trilogy (Early Warning, 2015, etc.).Read full book review >
EARLY WARNING by Jane Smiley
FICTION & LITERATURE
Released: April 28, 2015

"Sags a bit, as trilogy middle sections often do, but strong storytelling and a judicious number of loose ends will keep most readers looking forward to the promised third volume."
Opening with the 1953 funeral of patriarch Walter, Smiley follows the Langdon family introduced in Some Luck (2014, etc.) through its second and third generations. Read full book review >
SOME LUCK by Jane Smiley
FICTION & LITERATURE
Released: Oct. 7, 2014

"An expansive, episodic tale showing this generally flinty author in a mellow mood: surprising, but engaging."
Smiley (Private Life, 2010, etc.) follows an Iowa farm family through the thick of the 20th century. Read full book review >
GEE WHIZ by Jane Smiley
CHILDREN'S
Released: Oct. 8, 2013

"Another successful visit with Abby Lovitt and her horses. (Historical fiction. 10-14)"
Abby Lovitt's newest horse brings her a taste of the wider world. Read full book review >
PIE IN THE SKY by Jane Smiley
CHILDREN'S
Released: Sept. 11, 2012

"Despite this shortcoming, another interesting read for horse lovers and Abby Lovitt fans. (Fiction. 10-14)"
Smiley continues the equine adventures of Abby Lovitt (True Blue, 2011, etc.). Read full book review >
TRUE BLUE by Jane Smiley
Released: Sept. 27, 2011

"Smiley's pristine, graceful prose and thoroughly real characters make this a novel to savor. (Historical fiction. 10 & up)"
Smiley continues the story of Abby Lovitt and the horses on her family's California ranch in the 1960s. Read full book review >
A GOOD HORSE by Jane Smiley
CHILDREN'S
Released: Oct. 26, 2010

This sequel to The Georges and the Jewels (2009) is Smiley at her finest—detailed, nuanced, absorbing. Abby Lovitt's eighth-grade year starts out feeling less tumultuous than the year before: Her school life is more settled, her parents more at peace and Ornery George, a horse she struggled with, has been sold. Though she continues to ride several horses a day, two in particular fill her heart: Black George, who will jump anything, and Jack, her beautiful orphan foal. Suddenly it seems she will lose them both. Black George is so talented he's sure to attract an offer Abby's Daddy won't refuse, and, though her father bought Jack's dam in good faith, she may have been stolen, which means Jack may have to be returned. Abby, though, is learning to separate the gold from the dross, to see her family, friends, the rich people on the horse-show circuit and especially her horses with unflinching, compassionate truth. Black George and Jack are good horses, in every sense of the word; Abby will be good, too. Rich, real and utterly engrossing. (Historical fiction. 10-14)Read full book review >
BIOGRAPHY & MEMOIR
Released: Oct. 12, 2010

"Engrossing. Smiley takes science history and injects it with a touch of noir and an exciting clash of vanities."
Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Smiley (Private Life, 2010, etc.) looks at the curious personalities and tortured paths that led to the first computer(s). Read full book review >
PRIVATE LIFE by Jane Smiley
FICTION & LITERATURE
Released: May 1, 2010

"Her most ferocious novel since the Pulitzer Prize-winning A Thousand Acres (1991) and every bit as good. "
Smiley roars back from the disappointing Ten Days in the Hills (2007) with a scarifying tale of stifling marriage and traumatizing losses. Read full book review >
THE GEORGES AND THE JEWELS by Jane Smiley
CHILDREN'S
Released: Sept. 8, 2009

Abby's father names all the male horses that come through their farm George and all the female horses Jewel, and Abby knows it's to keep the family from becoming too attached to them. Training and reselling horses is their business, and good horses never stay with them long. Especially now that Abby's brother has left home, her helping in training them is important: The biggest market is for horses "even a little girl can ride." But the horse Abby nicknames Ornery George can't be ridden by a little girl—at least not by Abby, no matter how hard she tries. Her father's methods don't work; her uncle's are catastrophic. Pulitzer Prize winner Smiley's first book for younger readers is lush with the love of horses, old, young, cantankerous and wonderful. The difficulties Abby has at home and at school pale by comparison to her struggles with Ornery George, which makes her final victory even more sweet. It's the minute details of work with the horses that make this book sing, and horse-mad readers will snap it up. (Historical fiction. 10-14)Read full book review >
TEN DAYS IN THE HILLS by Jane Smiley
FICTION & LITERATURE
Released: Feb. 15, 2007

"A couple of touching moments toward the end can't redeem this surprising misstep from one of our most gifted novelists."
Smiley, who won a Pulitzer for transplanting King Lear to 1970s Iowa (A Thousand Acres, 1991), sets her modern-day version of The Decameron in Hollywood. And it's no prize-winner. Read full book review >
BEST NEW AMERICAN VOICES by Jane Smiley
FICTION & LITERATURE
Released: Oct. 1, 2005

"Impressive craftsmanship and high imaginative quality distinguish an annual that's becoming an essential."
Many roads are traveled in this sixth gathering of the best stories culled from the nation's writing programs and conferences. Read full book review >
THIRTEEN WAYS OF LOOKING AT THE NOVEL by Jane Smiley
NONFICTION
Released: Sept. 16, 2005

"Stimulating, provocative and unfailingly intelligent—in short, vintage Smiley."
Bracing literary criticism from a practitioner's point of view. Read full book review >
NON-FICTION
Released: April 20, 2004

"The surety and glow of her prose fragrantly convey the author's sensuous and protective love for horses; she's the kind of mother any foal would be lucky to have."
Novelist Smiley (Good Faith, 2003, etc.) portrays her life with horses in a text full of quirks, neuroses, personal insights, theories, and lots of polished vignettes. Read full book review >
GOOD FAITH by Jane Smiley
FICTION & LITERATURE
Released: April 28, 2003

"Blunt and bold: the work of one of America's best writers."
Smiley nails the Greed Decade with her trademark precision and philosophical bite. Read full book review >
CHARLES DICKENS by Jane Smiley
BIOGRAPHY & MEMOIR
Released: May 13, 2002

"A successful attempt to deepen the way we read Dickens, with clues to finding him in his own characters and words."
Pulitzer-winning novelist Smiley (Horse Heaven, 2000, etc.) brings her fluid prose to a fresh and insightful look, through a psychological lens, at the life of Dickens. Read full book review >
HORSE HEAVEN by Jane Smiley
FICTION & LITERATURE
Released: April 6, 2000

A fast-paced, fetchingly detailed, wide-angled view of the world of horse breeding-and-racing—and another lively illustration of Smiley's industrious literary work-ethic and gift for transmuting the products of her obviously extensive research into compelling fiction. The encyclopedic story—similar in structure and rhythm to such earlier Smiley successes as A Thousand Acres and the comic romp Moo—spans two years (1997-99) and various Kentucky, California, and foreign locales occupied and frequented by the performers, trainers, moneymen, and aficionados thrust together by their common passion for the sport of kings. West Coast multimillionaire Kyle Tompkins, for example, bankrolls the development of can't-miss racehorse Limitless, honed to competitive perfection by skilled trainer Farley Brown and Farley's ardent prot‚g‚e and assistant trainer Joy Gorham. Several other groupings of characters (human and animal) shed varying light—rather as in a Robert Altman film—on such rituals of the sport as auctioning horses, doctoring and "birthing" and betting on them, and, in several cases, seeking some form of ultimate communion or identification with them. Some of the more intriguing of Smiley's many characters include adulterous Westchester County matron Rosalind Maybrick (and her petulant Jack Russell terrier Eileen), 60-ish free spirit Elizabeth Zada (who claims she can read horses' minds), preadolescent Audrey Schmidt (whose love for equine creatures may or may not stimulate similar feelings for teenaged jockey Roberto Acevedo, and—in the neatest surprise—veteran gelding Justa Bob (to whose impulses and even thoughts we are made privy), whose excellent track record and stud-worthiness fortuitously affect his life span. The anthropomorphism occasionally verges on feyness ("In reviewing his life after . . . [Justa Bob] developed a painful crack in his right hoof front wall . . . ). But there are few such missteps, and in general the story prances along right smartly. Several horses here are given such names as Nureyev, Lorenzo de Medici, and Ivan Boesky. If one named Jane Smiley ever shows up in the racing form, you might just want to bet the farm on her. Read full book review >
THE ALL-TRUE TRAVELS AND ADVENTURES OF LIDIE NEWTON by Jane Smiley
FICTION & LITERATURE
Released: April 3, 1998

Smiley (Moo, 1995, etc.) scales another peak with this bighearted and thoughtful picaresque novel set mostly in the Kansas Territory shortly before the Civil War. Narrator Lydia "Lidie" Harkness grows up in Quincy, Illinois, a tomboyish burden to her several older stepsisters, and leaps at the chance to marry Thomas Newton, a soft-spoken abolitionist who's bent on helping the "free-staters" dedicated to protecting Kansas against those who would make it a slave state. Missourians crossing the border wreak havoc on such hotbeds of abolitionist activity as Lawrence (near which the Newtons settle), and Thomas is soon one of many casualties. The "disputacious" Lidie—who'd become an even more ardent free-stater than her husband—thereafter sets off on an eastward journey seeking revenge and finding instead an unexpected empowerment. Her adventures while disguised as a boy ("Lyman Arquette"), reporting for a proslavery newspaper, and helping a woman escape a plantation are recounted with a zest and specificity that beg comparison with Mark Twain's portrayal of the immortal Huck Finn. Lidie is a splendid creation: a forthright, intelligent woman who recognizes, long before she can articulate it, the kinship of women relegated to submissive housewifery with people who are literally bought and sold—and who acts to change things. Surrounding her are such agreeable supporting characters as silver-tongued, slaveowning widower "Papa" Day, "radical" Louisa Bisket (who considers corsets symbolic of male tyranny), and the superbly unctuous David Graves, blithely unimpeded by loyalties of any variety ("My principle is to serve both sides, to have no sides, indeed, but to serve all!"). Not all of Smiley's obviously scrupulous research is transmitted successfully into story—Lidie does mull over political and social complexities a mite compulsively. Little else goes awry, though, in the richly entertaining saga of a woman who might have been well matched with Thomas Berger's "Little Big Man," and whom Huck Finn would have been proud to claim as his big sister. Read full book review >
THE BEST AMERICAN SHORT STORIES 1995 by Jane Smiley
Released: Nov. 15, 1995

The eightieth anniversary issue of this annual series displays a catholicity of taste that's often been missing from previous volumes. Smiley's selection, drawn from a wide array of magazines, balances new and familiar voices, and, most noticeably, avoids the trendier themes and styles of recent years. Religious themes are honorably treated in a number of fine pieces here: Newcomer Steven Polansky's "Leg" concerns a middle-aged Christian father who sacrifices his leg in order to test the indifference of his head-banger son. Old pro Don DeLillo is represented by "The Angel Esmeralda," a densely imagistic story that embodies an almost medieval theological debate about transcendence, and sets it against the ruins of the South Bronx. Edward J. Delaney's "The Drowning" chronicles the dramatic life story of a former Irish priest who uses his knowledge from the confessional to alter his life forever. The bloody crossroads where politics and religion intersect provide the background for a tale set in Northern Ireland (Jennifer C. Cornell's "Undertow") and another about Zionist Nazi-hunters (Avner Mandelman's "Pity"). Meanwhile, the influence of genre fiction is a welcome addition: Jaimy Gordon's hard-boiled "Night's Work" brilliantly surveys the world of racetrack rates; equally tough-minded is Edward Falco's "The Artist," an action-filled narrative about a successful, suburban artist who dramatically confronts his crime-ridden past. Quirkier stories include the confessions of a former obsessive-compulsive (Andrew Cozine's "Hand Jive"); a macabre job-orientation lecture (Daniel Orozco's "Orientation"); Andrea Barrett's tale of love and honor among geneticists ("The Behavior of the Hawkweeds"); and Thom Jones's wild piece about an alcoholic baboon (from Cold Snap, p. 495). A number of clinkers concern familiar themes: a mother dying from cancer, a disaffected Vietnam vet, suburban adultery. But Ellen Gilchrist's "The Stucco House"—a seven-year-old's view of his troubled alcoholic mother—takes the honors as the collection's most moving story. A strong addition to the venerable series. Read full book review >
MOO by Jane Smiley
FICTION & LITERATURE
Released: April 7, 1995

A comic novel proves an agreeable change of pace for the ordinarily serious-minded Smiley (A Thousand Acres, 1991, etc.). At an unnamed Midwestern state university familiarly known as Moo U., the academic year 1989-90 is not going well. Budget cuts have been imposed by the state's yahoo governor; the faculty will have to clean their own offices, and food services will be taken over by McDonald's, which has no use for the unionized kitchen staff. Hostilities simmer between Dr. Lionel Gift, self-satisfied apostle of free-market economics, and "Chairman X," an unreconstructed '60s radical who heads the horticulture department. Other staff members jostling for position include Ivar Harstad, the university's ineffectual provost; Loraine Walker, his secretary, who really runs the place (and isn't above quietly shuffling money in and out of departments, depending on who gains her favor); associate English professor Timothy Monahan, whose social climbing in New York publishing is one of the book's funniest sequences; and earthy Helen Levy, professor of foreign languages, who likes to make life uncomfortable for her pompous male colleagues. A few students are sketched with equal incisiveness, though readers are unlikely to get emotionally involved with any of the characters. The fun comes from watching Smiley expertly juggle a huge cast in a convoluted plot that somehow manages to connect Gift's involvement with a sinister corporation that wants to mine gold from a virgin rain forest to a crazy local farmer's invention of a revolutionary new agricultural technique. The satire — of academic careerism, politics both left and right (though the conservatives get the worst lashing), and human foolishness of all sorts — stings but is never heavy-handed. As always in Smiley's fiction, expert storytelling propels the narrative forward, compensating here for a slightly chilly tone. Not as intellectually or morally challenging as the Pulitzer Prize-winner can be at her best, but Smiley coasting is still more stimulating than most writers trying their hardest. Read full book review >
A THOUSAND ACRES by Jane Smiley
FICTION & LITERATURE
Released: Nov. 4, 1991

Lear in Iowa. In a seaming, 20th-century version of Shakespeare's tragedy, Smiley—clawing open the "ingratitude" of a monarch's elder daughters to reveal a rage that could out-tempest Lear's—once again examines the buried secret hurts within families and the deadly results when damaged egos are unleashed: "The one thing...maybe no family could tolerate was things coming out into the open." Living under the iron order of that tyrannical, successful farmer Larry Cook, owner of 640 Iowa acres, are: daughter Rose, 34- year-old recovering cancer patient, mother of two and wife of ex-musician Pete, the perennial outsider, object of Larry's contempt; and childless Ginny, married to Tyler, an easygoing man who can betray with silence. Youngest daughter Caroline, whom motherless Rose and Ginny had raised and unfettered from Daddy, is a lawyer in Des Moines. It's at a well-liquored neighborhood social that Daddy announces he's giving up his farm to his three daughters. "I don't know," says cool lawyer Caroline, and Daddy slams off in a fury. As Rose and Ginny and their pleased husbands prepare for a release from Daddy's overlordship, something else is released when Rose—scenting out weakness in the terrible old man—hungers for revenge at last. Nothing but Daddy's repentance will do for deeds in the past so foul that Ginny has blotted out the memory and Rose has kept her silence. Circling around Rose's sizzling path toward impossible satisfaction, with Ginny in tow, are their husbands—one blunted, one death-bound—and a self-exiled native son who will drive a wedge between the two sisters, mingling a hate and lust/love that brings one to murder. As for Daddy's angel Caroline—come back to flight for Daddy (senile? maybe), never battered by home maelstroms—he's been simply a father "no more, no less." With the Bard's peak moments—the storm, a blinding, etc.—a potent tragedy immaculate in characters, stately pace, and lowering ambiance. Read full book review >
ORDINARY LOVE AND GOOD WILL by Jane Smiley
Released: Nov. 9, 1989

In these handsomely crafted novellas, as in The Age of Grief (1987) and other works, Smiley (The Greenlanders, 1988) sets within the fussy patterns of familial interaction the inexplicable—sudden, volcanic surfacings of rage or desire that transform a seemingly secure life into a new landscape of compromise and sad wisdom. In "Ordinary Love," 52-year-old Rachel, divorced mother of five, grandmother of four, awaits with son Joe the arrival from India of Joe's twin Michael. "An ancient wave of terror," notes Rachel, "seems to unroll from my head downward. . .reunions are fraught with echoes." Twenty years before, Rachel had announced to heartily dominating husband Patrick that she was having an affair with Ed, a novelist and world traveller. In a day or so, Patrick had taken the children away to England, and Rachel's life in the old house with happy children had gone up in smoke. Over the years, children will come home, leave again. Now during this reunion, one of Rachel's children will exhume old griefs—a shocker, matching Rachel's delayed truthtelling about her affair long ago. Her grown-up children, bright, good—and wary—were the recipients, Rachel realizes, of "two of the cruelest gifts. . .the experience of perfect family happiness and the certain knowledge that it could not last." In "Good Will," a 20th-century paradise in Pennsylvania—self-sufficiency on the lushly producing acres of a creatively designed farm with pioneer skills of cloth- and furniture-making—contains a family of three. Yet within the self-assertion of a lively, intelligent, adored young boy lies the serpent of destruction. At the close, paradise lost, his father will accept "fragments" instead of ecosystems of being; good and evil; grief and present new directions; and a time to direct—and a time to step aside from—the inexorable growth of a child. The quiet, even, but never thin narrative voices here pace out the discovery of elusive sad truths—truths that settle in and clarify in the wake of past betrayals by the jagged furies of the ego. Smiley's best to date. Read full book review >
THE GREENLANDERS by Jane Smiley
Released: April 18, 1988

Smiley (Duplicate Keys, The Age of Grief, etc.) has produced a bulky, sometimes spectacular saga of 14th-century Greenland—a tapestry of hunger, revenge and the disintegration of social institutions. Since the tenth century, Norsemen had farmed and hunted from spring until fall, trying to amass enough food to survive the winters. Smiley's novel plops down at a crucial turning point: the Plague has hit Europe hard, and contact with the continent (as well as the all-important inflow of churchmen) is falling off. Meanwhile, Asgeir Gunnarsson is at odds with his strange neighbors at Ketils Stead. When Asgeir murders a woman he believes to be a witch, the bishop awards the use of his prime field to his hatred rivals. This bitterness trickles down to the next generation—to quiet Gunnar and his sister Margret, whose ancestral stead is eventually usurped by the politically adept Ketils Stead crowd. Winter starvation has always been common, but a vomiting ill and a string of bad hunts prompts widespread death. Amidst the marriages; births and grievances, the bishop dies. The priests are now a low-profile lot, except for former cowherd Larus, who's turning some heads with his apocalyptic visions. And Bjorn Bollason, the lawspeaker, is benevolent and popular at first, but he gets impressed by talky visitors from Iceland and allows them to burn wild Koll-grim, Gunnar's son, at the stake. The annual "Thing" melts down into a bloody melee, pirates plunder and kill, and the saddened Greenlanders bury their dead. Into this icy historical vacuum—the period between the end of outside contact and the eventual disappearance of the Greenland settlers—Smiley pours a thin-broth existence, flavored in spots by dramatic events and complicated emotional relationships. Particularly interesting: the portrayal of the spiritual life as a bleak—and without priests—unconvincing go-round of tithes and half-remembered prayers. Smiley's uninflated prose lulls at first, but gradually accumulates the incantory power of a strange winter-told tale. A bleak, stirring picture of the slow slouch towards the death of a civilization. Read full book review >
NONFICTION
Released: Dec. 23, 1987

A sentimental and disappointing portrait of the tribe of men and women who work with their hands. In her first nonfiction book, Smiley (Barn Blind, 1980; At Paradise Gate, 1981; Duplicate Keys, 1984) displays a fiction writer's relish for the details of craft. She is at her best when describing Howard Bartholomew chiselling an acanthus leaf on a lowboy, or Michael Buyer trimming a ceramic pot, or John Hoeko plucking a feather from a gamecock neck to make a dry fly. But except for a few vivid descriptions, her book has little to offer. It's not a study of the crafts movement in the Catskills in the 1980's nor a history of crafts in the Catskills, nor a personal narrative of the author's discovery of handiwork. What it is, Smiley writes, is "a sort of friendship quilt." This verbal "quilt" is made up of sketches of 15 artisans, with each "patch" re-creating different aspects of a craftsman's life and work: the problems of making a living as an artisan, the question of art vs. craft, the history of a particular craft, the personal life of the artists. All of these "patches" when put together are supposed to offer a "picture of the way some people are living, and earning a living, in a particular place at a particular time." Unfortunately, in this paean to the near-religious experience of handicrafts (sewing "is a kind of physically paced meditation not much different from purely spiritual meditation"), Smiley fails to give her subject an intellectual shape and indulges in some rather trite general observations. Here, Smiley's words seem ultimately little more than lengthy captions for the book's 50 photographs. Read full book review >
THE AGE OF GRIEF by Jane Smiley
Released: Sept. 10, 1987

Five short stories and a novella by the author of Duplicate Keys (1984) and At Paradise Gate (1981), all celebrating, in one way or another, what Smiley in the novella dubs "The Age of Grief"—that time in middle age, "after all that schooling, all that care," when coming around to you is "the same cup of pain that every mortal drinks from." The protagonist here is a 35-year-old dentist, a husband and professional partner of a dramatically achieving wife, a father of three young daughters, and a contented tinkerer with "tiny machines, itsy bitsy pieces of cotton"—small things for a small life? He enters the Age of Grief when he becomes aware that his wife has a lover, and the future he'd always counted on "walking into" drops away. He probes the ties and trivia of family, and his own unexamined psycho-physical being, which erratically transmits grief and rage, and he confronts mortality in the terrifying illness of a child. As for marriage, it is "a small container" that two "inner lives" can burst or deform. The short stories, meanwhile, evolve some sad little truths. A cherished frienship with a married couple upends as careless exploitation. In "Lily," another hapless, unwitting intruder in a marriage pays a price. A reluctant visitor to his brother's Christmas celebration comes to recognize, in the failure' and fading of a long-distance love affair, his own "permanent smallness." Even a maker of bombs for a radical group admits—now that she's quit—that looking at the other side of the "firm shape of my life" reveals motives "trival, unimportant." "Jeffrey, Believe Me" is an amusing burlesque, poking fun at the female-seducer stereotype—here it's very hard work indeed, all for a swim in the gene pool. Smiley writes with a sound emotive control that shapes into firm tone and meaning the widely browsing meditations of her characters. And there is that memorable and sobering perspective—when vision changes from the far distance to the near reality of a life suddenly grown shriveled and, alas, permanently small. Read full book review >
DUPLICATE KEYS by Jane Smiley
Released: March 1, 1983

Smiley, a gifted novelist of family-relations (Born Blind, At Paradise Gate), goes murkily astray this time—in a Manhattan murder-mystery that probes, with talky stiffness, the inter-relations among an unappealing group of old Minnesota college friends, now all early-30s New Yorkers. (Not unlike The Big Chill set-up, but without the charm.) Denny Minehart and Craig Shellady, brother-like leaders of a not-quite-famous rock band, are found dead in the apartment they've shared for years with Denny's longtime lover, boutique-manager Susan Gabriel. The shocked discoverer of the bodies: Susan's best friend Alice Ellis—librarian, ex-wife of poet/prof Jim, and the novel's moody heroine. Whodunit? Was it another band-member, druggie Noah Mast, whose wife was sleeping with the charismatic, volatile Craig? Did something go wrong with a cocaine-selling deal arranged by another old pal, homosexual sound-man Ray? Or was the killer one of the many other people who had keys to the Denny/Craig/Susan apartment? Alice, a quiet type uncomfortable at the center of the ensuing tensions, mulls these possibilities, raking over past relationships—often in numbing conversations with strong, glamorous Susan. ("Well, doesn't all of this seem weird to you? The patterns of our lives formed twelve years ago! And they didn't basically change until now!") Alice also finds time to fall in love—cute talk, earnest sex—with botanist/neighbor Henry, even if (for unconvincing reasons) she can't bear to tell him about the murders. But then, while Noah is indeed arrested, Alice suddenly, intuitively knows that Susan committed the murders. ("Nonetheless, Alice knew that her adoration of her friend, and her anticipation of lasting, comfortable intimacy was greater than ever.") So this disturbing knowledge will mess up the Henry relationship. . . until a longwinded finale (Susan stalks Alice, Susan confesses), paves the way for a tinny, happy fadeout. Smiley extracts a few shrewd effects from the quiet, naturalistic approach to violence and grief: there's ironic, credible emphasis on what everybody eats and wears. Her prose is often stylish, thoughtful. But, unlike Barn Blind and At Paradise Gate, this novel is layered with artificial situations and implausible motivations—from Alice's tortured friendships to Susan's much-belabored murder motive (which relates to the undeveloped theme of the rock band's non-celebrity). Moreover, Smiley doesn't seem to know this world first-hand: details and dialogue lack authentic edges. A blurry, ambitious cluster of themes, then, never coming into focus—or rising above the murder-melodrama format. Read full book review >
AT PARADISE GATE by Jane Smiley
Released: Oct. 14, 1981

Though rather too belabored and talky to match the impact of Smiley's impressive Barn Blind debut (1980), this claustrophobic, deathbed study of an edgy Des Moines family reaffirms her acute feel for silent wounds, thwarted affections, and complex domestic tensions. Ike Robison, 77, is severely ill from heart disease, staying in bed except for occasional trudgings downstairs—and so the three 50-ish Robison daughters have come to gather 'round mother Anna (the novel's central focus) during what seems to be a deathwatch. But family unity is, hardly the result in the 24 hours covered here. The daughters—especially handsome, industrious Claire, who took her late husband's illness "like a pole-vaulter clearing a two-story house"—urge stubborn, tired Anna to move "Daddy" into the living-room, to hire a nurse. Claire and beautiful, cosmopolitan, snobbish Helen continue their everlasting verbal duel. Fat realtor Susanna murmurously bemoans her fate: no children, a husband who left her. And when Helen's young daughter Christine arrives, announcing her imminent divorce, a new subject is up for group discussion. "Her daughters were so unhappy! Was it her fault, after all?" So wonders Anna—but the daughters are the least of her anxieties. She rakes over the past: her strict Mama, her marriage and life with demanding Ike on a failing ranch, her 20-year refusal to let Ike sleep with her (separate rooms, the connecting door tied shut with a stocking). She berates herself: "Why did she fail to rise to the occasion of this illness, every day? Why did she meet every demand with resentment and reluctance. . .?" And through the dead-of-night hours—the novel's best section—the aged couple sleeps hardly at all: Anna is on edge, especially after a weird phone call (her imagination?); Ike's bed is re-made again and again; she rebuffs his wanderings into her room; they bicker and snipe, with an explosion from Anna when Ike says her long-ago friend Elinor "looked like a piece of beef jerky." But the next day, before Ike dies, there'll be a tiny moment—Anna helping Ike in the bathroom—of new closeness: "For the first time in her life, they overlapped." And brand-new widow Anna finally looks ahead, having worked through the "rules" and "demands" of the past. Most of this is quietly splendid, with plainspoken details, a brooding sense of the house itself, and un-gussied-up dialogue. Unfortunately, however, as if afraid that readers will miss the point, Smiley indulges in flat, repetitious summaries of the feelings involved. And even more marring are the daughters' speechy debates—which escalate when Christine much too neatly (Death and Rebirth) discovers that she's pregnant . . and which often make this novel seem like an old-fashioned, contrived stage-play. Flawed work, then, but worthy, honest, and—at its best—wry and sternly moving. Read full book review >
BARN BLIND by Jane Smiley
Released: June 2, 1980

In this unusual first novel Smiley, with flawless command of the shaky grandeurs and gritty drudgery which can absorb the equestrian fancy, matches the openended rigors of the discipline with one woman's tragically destructive obsession. Kate Karlsen, owner of 50 horses in the Illinois countryside, trainer hnd instructor, a "failed equestrienne" in the Big Time and a severe convert to Catholicism, manages her family of four children—college dropout Margaret, 17-year-old Peter, 15-year-old John, pre-teen Henry—by inflexible rules: a code of manners for stable management, horsemanship, household and school duties. "Kate felt certain. . . of the loveliness of those rules. . . the nearly sensual pleasure in following them, lashing oneself to them." And husband Axel, from whom Kate has withdrawn in a gesture of shriving asceticism, is still fascinated by this unapproachable, driven woman who loves her children but is blind to their needs and personalities. Through the days of hard, grinding labor (the entire complex is manned only by the children) what did they know of anything besides horses? And did anyone ever ask them if they liked horses? While the family prepares for the shows, the restless adolescents, long suppressed and bewildered by disorienting visions of simple freedoms, are shocked into abortive protest: John, resenting his mother's passionate championing of Peter, as her best training product and given her best mount, resorts to untypical cruelty and neglect of the horses; Margaret encourages a casual flirtation with an older horseman but dreams of ordinary dates; Henry plans to run away. And at the show on the Karlsen complex the family will ride together for the last time—handsome, straight-backed, "all six attesting to the wisdom of Kate's theories and methods." The lives, drawn taut, will snap. John is killed, leaving Axel, Margaret, and Henry, like discarded marionettes, slumped in grief. . . but weeks later Kate and Peter, enslaved forever by Kate's lifelong "tigerish" circling of unattainable perfection, are working on the training field in a "frightening happiness." A devastating probe of a woman sealed within that (to most of us) alien world of the track and paddock; special—but deep-driving. Read full book review >