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Ten Days in the Hills
464 pp., $26.00
Lauren F. Winner
Boccaccio in Hollywood
In 2005, Jane Smiley published a reader's and writer's guide, Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Novel. The title seems particularly apt, since there are at least 13 ways of looking at Smiley's own fiction. Few people love every last one of her novels, but it is in part her delightfully unpredictable range that makes her one of our finest contemporary writers. She has written academic satire (Moo); sprawling novels of manners (Good Faith); historical fiction (The All-True Travels and Adventures of Liddie Newton), not to mention a massive saga (The Greenlanders); a dark, sophisticated murder mystery (Duplicate Keys); and finely grained domestic studies (most famously the Pulitzer Prize-winning Ten Thousand Acres, but also Paradise Gate, Barn Blind, and—possibly my very favorite piece of 20th-century American fiction—the novella The Age of Grief). In her latest novel, Ten Days in the Hills, Smiley melds interpersonal drama with political commentary, and the result is dazzling.
Just as Ten Thousand Acres is—among other things—a feminist reinterpretation of KingLear, Ten Days in the Hills is a riff on Boccaccio's Decameron. Written in the 1350s, Boccaccio's classic centers on ten Italians sequestered together outside Florence in an attempt to escape both boredom and the bubonic plague. They pass the time telling one another morally instructive, bawdy, salacious, entertaining, tantalizing stories, with time off for holy days.
Unsurprisingly, Smiley's crew doesn't observe the church calendar. Max and Elena are middle-aged lovers who found each other in Hollwood. He's a movie director who's not worked in a while; she writes self-help manuals. Both are parents of 20-something kids. Both are lefties. Both are passionate, and both have learned a thing or two about themselves and the world. Around Max and Elena assembles a quirky group of friends and family, who show up, more or less uninvited, for what evolves into a long house-party. There's Zoe, a famous ...