Smiley’s domestic realism may recall the stories of John Updike and other writers concerned with subtleties of relationships. Smiley, however, specializes in the portrayal of connections not made, communications not completed, because her protagonist lacks the depth of character and courage needed to complete them. These protagonists have an intellectual sophistication that makes them feel superior, but they are emotionally underdeveloped.
Smiley also has a characteristic structure in many of her short stories: a character who cannot feel or react honestly to life, who is in some sense an outsider unable to be intimate with another, is shown his or her limitation by exposure to someone who can. Sometimes the outsider is unmasked by his or her attempt to intervene in the life of another without knowing what that life is and means.
Smiley’s dialogue carries much of the weight of her themes. In “Long Distance,” it is direct and realistic, yet multilayered and subtle. Each speech sounds perfectly natural, yet communicates a wealth of information about the relationships and advances the action as well. Rather than placing her characters in the usual situations of their ordinary lives, saying their usual things, Smiley manages to imply the typical content of a life through contrast with a present, unusually strained situation in which characters step out of their usual roles and speak differently but fully in character.
The description is subtle and functional. Smiley’s suburban home is presented as a wonderfully ambiguous place. It is a tidy little domestic hell, with all the standardized attitudes, activities, and equipment that her outsider character can mock, yet it may be the only real testing ground for character and values.