(Masterpieces of American Literature)

The collection of short fiction entitled The Age of Grief presents a wide array of adults battling for and against emotional commitment. These five stories examine family life through characters on the periphery of domesticity. Because the women protagonists in “Lily” and “The Pleasure of Her Company” admire a marital realm they observe only from a distance, both prove unprepared for the disappointments that ensue. Their limited insight into human relationships results, in part, from the absence of such entanglements in their own lives. Lily’s emotional “virginity” permits her the freedom to write but also leads her to meddle unwittingly in a marriage whose compromises she has overlooked. In “The Pleasure of Her Company,” Florence witnesses the dissolution of an “ideal” marriage but also rejects the cynic’s dismissal of love as a delusion, pursuing her own blossoming love affair with the realist’s admonition that “it’s worth finding out for yourself.”

Smiley also caricatures those who orchestrate their emotional lives with the same professional calculation they apply to their stock portfolios, as with the female letter-writer of “Jeffrey, Believe Me.” Here the protagonist remains so intent on bearing a child before she is too old that she willfully seduces a gay male friend and callously rejects any personal responsibility for the other human beings she is exploiting. The male protagonist of “Long Distance”...

(The entire section is 572 words.)