I did notice today that Jane Smiley's novel Ten Days in the Hills has just come out in paper. So here's my review of it that ran when the book first appeared.
TEN DAYS IN THE HILLS
By Jane Smiley
Anchor, 544 pp., $14.95 paperback
It’s an old trick: You put together a group of people in a semi-isolated setting such as a country house or a vacation retreat and see what happens. It’s worked in everything from Chekhov’s plays to Jean Renoir’s Rules of the Game to Stephen Sondheim’s A Little Night Music (and its source, Ingmar Bergman’s Smiles of a Summer Night).
Jane Smiley also has something even older in mind: Boccaccio’s Decameron, in which ten Florentines escape the plague-threatened city for ten days. She seems to have approached her new novel, Ten Days in the Hills, as a kind of “thought experiment,” letting the story grow out of the characters. What would happen if a pair of lovers, Max and Elena, were joined at his home by Max’s daughter and Elena’s son, plus Max’s ex-wife, Zoe, and her current lover? And what if you added in Zoe’s mother and three more of their friends? And set the novel at a time of political and social tension?
And what if you made Max a movie director, Elena a successful writer of how-to books and Zoe a famous movie star? And what if you put Max’s house in a spectacular hillside setting in Pacific Palisades? And instead of plague, made the threatening event the
What would you get? You know already: a lot of talk and a lot of sex. Something for everyone.
Or not. The trouble with the talk is that so much of it is predictable. It’s
At least there’s the sex, which Smiley is generous with. Max is having a little dysfunction problem, brought about in part by the standstill in his career, so Elena is solicitous in her attempts to arouse him. Zoe is nearing the end of her relationship with Paul, a New Agey “healer,” so she checks out Elena’s son, Simon, a handsome and sexually adventurous young slacker who has recently shaved his head so he can play the role of a phallus in a student film. Simon is happy to get it on with anyone, female or male, who’s willing. As for Max and Zoe’s daughter, Isabel, she’s been having a secret affair with Max’s agent, Stoney, since she was a teenager.
At the midpoint of the ten days that these ten characters spend together, the whole ensemble is invited to the fabulous but somewhat sinister home -- Shangri-la crossed with the Hearst Castle -- of a Russian entrepreneur (read: gangster). The Bel-Air estate is filled with secret treasures, including a hitherto unknown Vermeer and what may just be the actual
The Russian proposes to bankroll a film version of Gogol’s Taras Bulba that would be more faithful to the story than the 1962 Yul Brynner/Tony Curtis clunker. Max is trying to decide between directing this epic, to be filmed on the steppes of
The satiric potential is obvious, and Smiley exploits it. Yet she also gives her characters depth and plausibility, which works against merely using them to lampoon