"Ordinary Love" and "Good Will" Summary

Jane Smiley


(Masterpieces of American Literature)

By placing a mother’s story alongside a father’s story in this volume, Smiley experiments with the differing narrative rhythms she associates with each gender. The first-person voice of Ordinary Love belongs to a fifty-two-year-old Iowan, a divorced mother of five grown children who typifies Smiley’s clear-eyed defiance of sentimental pieties about the heartland matriarch. Rachel Kinsella’s story, matter-of-factly told in a tone at once stoic and unrepentant, involves the jarring incompatibility of having proudly borne five babies in five years while married to a doting, ambitious doctor, then initiating an adulterous love affair that ruptured the family idyll so completely that even her identical twin sons were separated in ensuing custody battles. Rachel’s history, an arc of emotional devastation and recovery, leads her in middle age to a maturity brought into being out of wildness, grief, and tenacity.

The novella’s more immediate drama involves Rachel’s effort to manage the return of one twin son, Michael, from a two-year stint in India as a teacher. In a family in which each separation reprises the traumatic earlier severance of mother from child, sibling from sibling, Michael’s personal transformation overseas again exposes the instability of even the most basic human ties. Within this charged atmosphere, a series of confidences unfolds. Rachel tells her children for the first time about the love affair that disrupted their lives; her elder daughter Ellen retaliates with a description of their subsequent neglect by an irresponsible father, and Michael reveals his destructive liaison with a married woman. Meditating on these secrets, Rachel concedes that the real fruit of such knowledge lies not simply in one’s own suffering but also in learning one’s potential to inflict suffering on others, especially those one holds most dear. Rachel confronts the fact that she cannot spare her children the heart’s perverse and unrelenting hunger for what it cannot have, a...

(The entire section is 819 words.)