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THE SMASH-UP by Ali Benjamin


by Ali Benjamin

Pub Date: Feb. 2nd, 2021
ISBN: 978-0-593-22965-1
Publisher: Random House

A hypertopical, semisatirical, Ethan Frome–inspired portrait of a family on the edge.

Sixteen years ago, Ethan and Zo Frome (short for Zenobia) fled Brooklyn for life in the “quiet nowhere” that is Starkfield, Massachusetts, and now, as they settle into middle age, it's becoming clear to both of them that their lives have not worked out as they planned. When we meet them, in 2018, against the backdrop of the Brett Kavanaugh hearings, Zo is consumed with her women’s group, All Them Witches, which, since Trump’s election—though neither political event is named explicitly—has met in the Fromes' living room “to make posters and write postcards and process the dumpster fire that is the news these days.” And though Ethan is, in his own estimation “one of the good guys,” who respects women, of course he does, he cannot help but find this off-putting, the way it is both sexless and distinctly middle-aged. When they met, Zo was a promising documentary filmmaker, and the guerrilla marketing startup he co-founded was on the cutting edge, and now she's rage-buying furniture online, and he's living off checks from a company he hasn’t worked for in years. Meanwhile, their 11-year-old daughter has severe ADHD neither she nor they can cope with, which is part of why they’ve hired 20-something Maddy, who, rather than solutions, brings troubles of her own. (Also, predictable romantic intrigue for Ethan.) Nothing about the characters is idiosyncratic or surprising or especially nuanced—not Zo’s anger, not Ethan’s wistful nostalgia—and the novel can’t seem to decide exactly how heightened it wants to be. And yet the plot is cleverly constructed, and lost-youth longing is intoxicating, and just because the characters seem sent from central casting doesn’t mean they can’t pack an emotional punch.

Enjoyable and well plotted, if slightly contrived.