The Age of Grief

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 8)

In five of these six pieces, Jane Smiley illustrates how the current central problem of a protagonist pervades the whole of his or her life until it is resolved. Her characters wrestle with one crisis internally while apparently handling other difficulties that are visible to observers. The external activities become means of working through the inner problem. For this reason, there are usually two main threads to Smiley’s plots in The Age of Grief.

In “The Pleasure of Her Company,” Florence, a pediatric nurse unlucky in love, finds friends in her new neighbors, Frannie and Philip Howard. Drawn especially to Frannie, Florence becomes virtually a part of their family. She finds their marriage comforting, but also mysterious, for Frannie refuses to confide about her husband. While she is enjoying and wondering, Florence begins to fall in love with Bryan, a new friend, and the Howards announce their separation. Florence tries to understand the separation at the same time that she is trying to decide whether to marry Bryan. Love for Frannie blinds her to Philip’s position until she learns that Frannie is moving in with her lesbian lover. Then Philip tells her that he and Frannie used her as a kind of buffer in their conflict. He says that she was the only one of the three who was happy in this relationship, but nevertheless, seeking happiness in marriage is worthwhile.

In this opening story, Smiley develops themes that recur throughout the collection. Intimate relationships, however simple they may appear on the outside, are always intricate and complex from within. When intimates are troubled in their relationships, they can be utterly ruthless on behalf of love, even in their kindness, as they work out their difficulties. The second story, “Lily,” develops these themes in a way parallel to the first.

Lily is a successful poet who has never been loved. When Nancy and Kevin, a couple to whom she was close in college, come to visit, she hopes that they will tell her why she is so lonely. Instead, she is drawn into the complications of their troubled marriage. Though they like being married to each other, they are troubled in many ways, each irritated by the other’s rough edges. Nancy finds Kevin sexually attractive, but too inept to please her, so she is unfaithful. Kevin, a college football star, now a successful businessman, has been discovering that his athletic grace and strength do not transfer as easily to marriage as to business. He loves Nancy, but her reluctance to have intercourse makes him aware of his inadequacy. The desperate Kevin turns to Lily with a question like her own. He asks if she believes that Nancy loves him. With the coolness and distance that make her a good poet, Lily answers honestly that she thinks not. Nancy then says to Lily, “You hate tension, you hate conflict, so you cut it off, ended it. We could have gone on for years like this, and it wouldn’t have been that bad!” In this way, Nancy answers Lily’s question. Without this messy tension, there can be no loving. Like Florence, Lily has not yet appreciated the complexity of intimate relationships.

“Jeffrey, Believe Me” is an exception in this collection. Though all the stories have moments of humor, this one is a delightful romp in the form of a letter to Jeffrey, a homosexual or bisexual, whom the female narrator has seduced in order to become pregnant. She explains her overriding motivation in seducing him: her desire to possess his genes for her child. In every important way, he strikes her as the ideal specimen for biological fatherhood. The fun of this story is in the means by which she seduces him and in her doubts and desires during the process. One of the more amusing ironies of her attempt is that she accidentally renders him unconscious. Rather than mate with him in this state, she gives up and goes to sleep. Then she awakens to discover that her being unconscious does not restrain him in the same way.

In “Long Distance,” Kirby, a young academic, tries to resolve his guilt over seducing and abandoning Mieko, a Japanese schoolteacher, while he was a guest teacher in Japan. His struggle is shown in the context of a Christmas visit with his two older brothers and their families in Minneapolis. Before he leaves home, Mieko telephones with the news that because her father is dying, she cannot make her planned visit to the United States. When she weeps over this lost possibility, almost certainly her only chance to escape her loneliness, he is witness to a loss that only he could remedy. He is, however, unwilling. He is relieved that she will not come, for he is unprepared to give her what she is bound to expect. During his visit, he watches how his brothers, their wives, and children manage to get along despite many points of tension and conflict, and he broods over how to...

(The entire section is 1981 words.)


(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Sources for Further Study

Library Journal. CXII, August, 1987, p. 145.

The New York Times. CXXXI, August 26, 1987, p. C21.

The New York Times Book Review. XCII, September 6, 1987, p. 12.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXXI, July 10, 1987, pp. 56-57.

The Wall Street Journal. September 8, 1987, p. 28.