Quite a while ago, I don’t remember when, I had heard that Jane Smiley’s novellas were very good. Despite owning a couple of her books, I still haven’t read anything by her, so I thought this might be a good opportunity to give her a try. I enjoyed both of these, but Good Will probably came out ahead.
Ordinary Love is about a dysfunctional family. The parents are no longer together and the kids are grown. When the youngest were 5 years old (twin boys), their father took them away and they didn’t see their mother again for years. After that, they saw both parents on and off, depending on who the father wanted around and who he wanted to send to their mother. Even though this must have been awful for the mother, she doesn’t dwell on what can’t be changed. Instead, there is a lot of looking back at what happened in the past to help explain the actions of her children (and herself) now, and how the family relates and interacts with one another. And, as the story goes on, we learn more snippets about the past. It was definitely an interesting study of family dynamics.
For example, one of the daughters seems to keep close tabs on her mother, possibly as a result of the mother being out of the picture for a few years. And the twins are very different from each other. We soon learn that they were treated quite differently by their father as they were growing up. This story makes us think about how what we say and do to a child, even when we don’t realize it, can easily determine the kind of person they become. But the story is ultimately about the love of a mother, and how, even after a rough ride, it can still be shown and felt and acknowledged.
I try to accept the mystery of my children, of the inexplicable ways they diverge from parental expectations, of how, however much you know or remember them, they don’t quite add up.
The bodies in the house, whose presence comforts me, are the bodies of my children, not my mother and father. What comforts me is not my own safety anymore, but theirs.
This is a great passage about how a person might sometimes feel as a spouse and a parent (yes, I admit that the knitting metaphor strikes a chord with me):
Away from Pat, I was without anger, without that grating supervision, the constant call for my attention and response. I was no longer a pivot between the boss and the peons, responsible to everyone, the miraculous fragmenting woman, pulled apart everyday only to be knitted together every night so that she could be pulled apart again in the morning.
Bob, a Vietnam veteran, his wife Liz, and their 8-year-old son are living off the grid. Despite (or, maybe because of) the fact that their lives are unconventional in most ways (no electricity, no car, no TV, etc.), they decide against homeschooling their son and send him to school. They are happy and content; their child seems happy; their world feels right.
Until one day there is some trouble at school. Their son has deliberately destroyed some dolls that belonged to a classmate. And, what is more, this classmate is the only ‘black’ child in his class. They are shocked and mortified, and when they ask him about it, even more horrified by his response. What could be going on?
This story has us thinking, once again, about the ways our children see the world and how this can impact them. It touches on envy and the possible consequences of being different, or, more accurately, feeling different. This story also makes me feel better, as a parent, for giving into some of these modern technological contraptions the world shoves upon us these days that I can never feel quite comfortable with, but that the kids could happily spend their lives on.
The way in which the story ends, though, doesn’t sit well with me (and, I’m guessing that it’s not supposed to). Is it inevitable that we give in to societal pressure to be the same as everyone else? Why does it have to be so hard to be different/live differently? Bringing children up with values and skills around living simply and knowing how to support yourself should be a good thing, shouldn’t it?
Terrifying is when the parents are the source of the trouble, not the kids.
I would recommend either of these novellas to anyone interested in reading about families, parenting, family dynamics, the effects of the past on the present, and the effects of society on our lives and the choices we make.
Based on these novellas, I can see myself reading more Jane Smiley in the future – what are some of your favourite Jane Smiley books/stories?