Prize-winning novelist Jane Smiley’s Ordinary Love & Good Will comprise two separate narratives of novella-length.
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The two stories are connected by the thread they weave through the themes of parental mistakes and the effect of those mistakes on the children.
Despite the overarching theme, the stories are quite different. The first portrays the post-middle age life of Rachel Kinsella, mother of five and divorcée. She narrates her own story of having had an affair which resulted in the abandonment of her husband and temporary estrangement from her children. The story, however, does not revolve around her affair, but its aftermath. She tells the children about her affair only when they are adults. All five children (two of whom are twins) are mature, and some have family of their own. Only after her confession (which is met with surprise and sympathy) does Rachel gain some insight into what family life was like for her children after her husband took them and went to England. She learns that the her husband temporarily abandoned them, and behaved erratically as he coped with the loss of his wife. Rachel’s divorced life at the time of narration is quotidian, happy, and moderately successfully (she works for the state), but her decision to have an affair wrought a slow havoc whose effects she continues to see twenty years after parting from her children’s father.
The second novella, Good Will, features the male protagonist, Bob Miller, a veteran whose name echoes the simplicity of the austere and self-reliant life has chosen for himself and his family. He and his wife, Liz, and son, Tommy, live on a sprawling farm in Pennsylvania, where they make their own clothing and furniture and raise their own food. Bob is proud of his meager income and expenses. He is so self-assured that he ignores warning signs concerning his son’s behavior. Tommy antagonized a black schoolmate, Annie. Bob first makes amends with the family, but then himself becomes similarly envious of their upper-class lifestyle. Failing to receive help for his emotional angst and inner conflict (probably resulting from having had a forced lifestyle of austerity thrust upon him), Tommy burns the black family’s house down on a day on which school closed early because of a blizzard. The family is sued by Tommy’s victims’ insurance company, who is suing the family for neglect. The mother and father are forced into menial jobs and struggle to make ends meet in an apartment. Despite Bob’s egomaniacal nature and his pride at having been a counterculture paterfamilias, he reflects briefly on his blindness and naïveté when he considers how his seemingly insulated life has been profoundly shaken.
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...