Who knew that Jane Smiley had so much to teach us about movies?
After writing 11 works of fiction and three nonfiction books, including A Thousand Acres, the masterwork that won her the Pulitzer Prize, Smiley took an intermission from her own fiction to school readers in Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Novel. Now Smiley returns with a tour de force novel that showcases her vast cinematic lore, reminding us why she has earned a reputation as one of the greatest entertainers in American letters.
In Ten Days in the Hills, Smiley cleverly borrows the narrative set-up of Boccaccio's Decameron to allow her readers to eavesdrop on a 10-day house party among members of Hollywood's second-string players. It's 2003 and the curtain comes up on this lively group as Elena, a 50-year-old self-help writer, is basking in the afterglow of her first Oscar night with her lover, Max, a 58-year-old film director worried that his best films are behind him.
"Max knew that around town he was known as 'a survivor.' It meant that you had been able to sustain your career, make the best of your talents…. It meant that you had never offended the studios… It was the smallest compliment to people who cared about movies, because it meant that you were not a brilliant or interesting artist, but, rather, a reliable manager. Max cared about movies."
Smiley cares about movies, too, and as the couple's quirky friends and relatives descend upon them for an extended immoveable feast, Smiley kicks off a marathon of Woody Allen-like conversations witty enough to keep readers chuckling for nearly 450 pages. Each guest proves more opinionated than the last, but their one shared obsession—movies past, present, and future—allows Smiley the opportunity to splice her views on the cinema into her own brand of Oscar-worthy dialogue.
Assembling a group that could be called the thinking person's Big Chill, Smiley gathers together Max's ex-wife, Zoe, an actress, and her new hippy-dippy boyfriend, Paul, as well as Max and Zoe's environment-obsessed daughter, Isabel, who hilariously tortures the other guests with her militantly greener-than-thou perspective. Stoney, Max's incompetent Hollywood agent, chooses to lounge poolside trading barbs (and more) with Isabel as he ignores his client's schmaltzy project ideas, including a film Max would like to call My Lovemaking With Elena).
Staying true to her Boccaccian ideal, Smiley pokes fun at her elitist characters, all of whom turn out to be cloistered in their own way, though perhaps not as literally as those in The Decameron. And just like that 14th-century group of revelers, this party has its own voice of dissent: Charlie, the party's sole political conservative, is Max's childhood friend from back East who is perfectly positioned to stir up heated debate among the party-goers on the subject of the Iraq war.
Throughout her career Smiley has demonstrated a genius for thrusting readers straight into the heart of her character's emotions, and this time it feels as if she's adjusted the lens and taken us in for an even closer look. Just how does she make us care so deeply for these people? Perhaps it's because the romance between Max and Elena feels like a well-deserved second chance at love. Or maybe Max's career struggles—his desire to leave a lasting legacy—are so easy for many of us to relate to.
While Ten Days in the Hills is more a book of ideas than action, readers will be amazed at just how far clever repartee and subplots can carry a novel. And who knows? You just might learn a thing or two about the movie industry along the way.
Andrea Hoag is a book critic whose reviews and reporting also appear in The Los Angeles Times and Publishers Weekly.