The Age of Grief

by Jane Smiley

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 572

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” offers an alternative response to such narcissism: His Christmas odyssey to join his brothers for the holidays prompts a reassessment of his callousness toward a Japanese woman with whom he has had an affair. Never having acknowledged the continual negotiations at the heart of family life, he now sees the moral bankruptcy in his self-serving behavior.

In “Dynamite,” a woman in early middle age juggles conflicting impulses about integrating her past lives. A radical political activist in the 1960’s, Sandy has lived underground for the past twenty years. Even as she yearns to recover ties with a mother she has never truly known, she restlessly yearns “to do the most unthought-of thing, the itch to destroy what is made—the firm shape of life, whether unhappy, as it was, or happy, as it is now.” Memory and fantasy weave an elaborate web of longing in her that prompts wild behavior swings and punctures the bourgeois stability that she seems, superficially, to covet. Sandy’s paradoxes defy taming and make her representative of the struggle against self that is typical of Smiley’s protagonists.

The volume’s title novella depicts a family crisis in which a laboriously constructed normality gives way from within. The story is told in the first person by David Hurst, guardian of that normality. Father of three young daughters and a successful dentist, he sees his carefully balanced world collapse when his wife and professional partner, Dana, falls suddenly in love with another man. David struggles with how to handle his knowledge of the affair and chooses to remain silent even as it intrudes into every facet of his life. The family moves to the edge of dissolution as Dana’s obsession keeps her away from home for twenty-four hours. When she finally reappears, she and David agree not to discuss what has led her to relinquish her lover and cautiously resume their marriage. With a generosity of spirit—or failure of will—steeped in profound sadness, David describes his midlife experiences as “the same cup of pain that every mortal drinks from.”

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