Friday, May 30, 2014

The Age of Grief, by Jane Smiley

The Age of Grief is a collection that includes five short stories and the title novella, which is the star of the collection (and is placed last in the book). Dave and Dana are married dentists in practice together. They are in a difficult phase of their 30s,what Dave calls the age of grief, when you recognize "that the barriers between the circumstances of oneself and of the rest of the world have broken down" and you realize that you must drink from the "same cup of pain that every mortal drinks from."  They are working and raising three daughters together, the youngest of whom is in a phase in which only her father can make her happy. This phase creates tension in the family and exhausts Dave. Then Dave comes to believe that Dana is having an affair, and he loses it, doing nearly anything to stop Dana from confessing to him. At their weekend home, for example, he hides outside (in the winter!) all night to avoid a conversation. A flu bug that strikes the entire family forces Dave and Dana to decide what they are going to do about the "small container" that is their marriage.

A similarly bleak view of marriage is reflected in two of the five short stories. Both of these stories involve a couple and a third person whose expectations of friendship with the couple cannot be met. In "The Pleasure of Her Company," Florence is enamored with her new neighbors, feeling they have an ideal life; she soon learns that her perceptions couldn't be more wrong. The title character of "Lily" hopes her married friends can advise her on why she cannot find love; again, however, her visit with Kevin and Nancy reveals that they are not who the previous ten years of friendship had led her to believe. A third story, "Long Distance," involves a young man who has just ended a relationship with a Japanese woman in a way that has left him feeling small and insensitive. He is also spending the holidays with his two married brothers, and observing their family dynamics is disorienting--again, providing an outsider's view of marriage. The third-party observations of marriage give these stories an unusual perspective that differentiates them from "The Age of Grief," despite similar tones and themes.

The remaining two stories, while written in Smiley's deft style, seemed dated--although this collection was published in 2002, the individual pieces were written in the late 1970s and 1980s, when Smiley was the age of the characters in this book. Interestingly, I recently read a brief piece she had written about being 64 and am happy to report that her outlook about this phase of life is quite upbeat--it will be interesting to see whether her book coming out later this year reflects that view.

Favorite passage:
. . . there were certain notes that should not have ended, that should be eternal sounds in the universe.

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