"Ordinary Love" and "Good Will"

by Jane Smiley
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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 451

Prize-winning novelist Jane Smiley’s Ordinary Love & Good Will comprise two separate narratives of novella-length.

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.


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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 819

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 lesson she herself taught them years ago.

Good Will further demonstrates Smiley’s insights into the daily struggles for psychological control underlying the surfaces of family life. Here the first-person narrative belongs to Vietnam War veteran Bob Miller, a man who has systematically created a world for his nuclear family meant to exist independently of mainstream society. The novella opens eighteen years into his counterculture experiment.

Bob’s talents with his hands permit him an economic self-sufficiency meant to repudiate the empty materialism of American culture. Yet his virtues slip over into dogmatism, as he uses his ingenuity to enclose his loved ones within the range of his own authority. Ironically, the discord within Bob’s self-willed paradise comes from the very people he believes to be his allies. In joining a fundamentalist religious congregation, his wife, Liz, betrays a spiritual longing that she cannot satisfy through marriage.

More sinister, and ultimately more disastrous, is the racist hostility conceived by their seven-year-old son, Tommy, for an African American schoolmate whose affluent home life focuses the boy’s rage at his own marginality. His destructiveness forces his parents to confront their arrogance in assuming the right, much less the power, to control Tommy’s responses to the world. To his surprise, Bob finds himself mimicking his son’s emotional conflicts. Lydia Harris, the mother of Tommy’s victim, proves a similar challenge to Bob’s professed allegiances, with her university professorship, her elegant decorating sense, and her acceptance of life’s ambiguities (her field of study is, suggestively, probability). Like Tommy, Bob struggles with the shock of seeing the limitations of his own meager existence so baldly exposed.

Bob is equally humbled by his inability to curtail Tommy’s escalating violence. This failure compels ever tighter reliance on the community from which he has so aggressively distanced himself. The real target of Tommy’s anger, of course, is the father who has isolated him from the world of his peers and has refused him his own choices. The boy sets in motion a grim social services machinery that slowly strips the Millers of their hard-won autonomy. Demands for reparations force the sale of their homestead and convert both adults into wage earners struggling to keep up with the expenses of apartment living. All three family members enter therapy, and the adults face the threat of further legal action for the “recklessness” that led them to cut themselves off from the networks that might have intervened to save Tommy.

As the story ends, Bob concedes the futility of his effort to keep the incoherence of human life at bay: “Let us have fragments, I say . . . and remember the vast, inhuman peace of the stars pouring across the night sky above the valley.” Whether Bob will find the inner resources to withstand the future remains ambiguous, but he will no longer evade the grinding truth of Eden’s evanescence or his own role as the worm at the heart of his own dreams.

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