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.
Her characters are not drawn together by a disaster as directly threatening as the Black Death, though the recently launched invasion of Iraq inspires nearly as much dread in one of them. Self-help author Elena can’t help brooding about the war, even as she lies in bed kissing her lover, slightly-past-his-prime film director Max. It’s March 24, 2003, the morning after the Oscars, and Max’s house is filled with guests: insecure Stoney, who inherited the job of Max’s agent from his more dynamic father; belligerently patriotic Charlie, Max’s childhood friend; Delphine, who’s still living in Max’s guest house years after his divorce from her daughter, gorgeous movie star Zoe; Delphine’s best friend Cassie; Max and Zoe’s daughter Isabel; and Elena’s feckless son Simon. In wander Zoe and her new lover Paul, a New Age-y healer, and the stage is set for ten days of storytelling à la Boccaccio. Unsurprisingly, many of the tales involve movies and moviemaking, though Smiley nods to her source material a few times (e.g., a notorious sinner declared a saint after a mendacious deathbed confession). If only her narrative were as lively as the bawdy Decameron: There’s plenty of sex, but most of it is clinical rather than erotic, and the erectile difficulties of middle-aged men don’t make for very arousing reading either. The parade of stories has no evident thematic unity, and the characters are frequently irritating. Even those who agree with Elena’s feelings about Iraq may grow tired of her harping on the subject, and Isabel’s perennially aggrieved stance toward her mother hardly seems justified by Zoe’s mildly diva-esque behavior. A change of venue to a lavish mansion owned by a mysterious Russian who wants Max to direct a remake of Taras Bulba helps not at all.
A couple of touching moments toward the end can’t redeem this surprising misstep from one of our most gifted novelists.