Jane Smiley’s plot brings to mind Henry James’s story “The Beast in the Jungle.” Both stories feature a character too self-centered to commit to another human being, a character who feels himself special or chosen; both conclude with the hero realizing that he has missed forever the chance to be fully human. Smiley’s lighter touch and suburban setting allow a rueful identification on the part of the reader. Her close analysis of people’s misreadings of one another provides insight into the isolation of much of contemporary life and the exploitation of others this isolation provokes.
Kirby both wants and does not want companionship. He is relieved when Mieko cannot come. He thinks that his family will not accept her and that he will fail her because he cannot provide for her the support that she needs. He is unwilling to ask her to marry him, to make the relationship permanent, yet he is driven to her by loneliness. She is the most beautiful woman he has ever seen, and she loves him, but he has a deep-seated horror of the conventions of married life and of the suburban lifestyle he sees as inseparable from marriage. His need for companionship is countered by the fear of intimacy. Kirby does not want to be alone but wants complete freedom.
In what could be described as a long-distance society, communication is difficult. The telephone is no vehicle for intimacy, and misunderstandings abound. Kirby violates Mieko in Japan by turning...
(The entire section is 457 words.)