"Ordinary Love" and "Good Will" Analysis

Jane Smiley

"Ordinary Love" and "Good Will"

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 34)

The two novellas in this volume have much in common. Both are told in the first person and largely in the present tense, narrative modes widely used during the 1980’s in short fiction. Both are concerned with families in crisis; in both, women and children are victimized by powerful, brilliant, yet spiritually deficient men. Nevertheless, they are distinct works of art. The significant action of Ordinary Love has all occurred in the past; this is a story of revelation, of the weight of the past bearing down on the present, rather in the manner of the fiction of Henry James. The action of Good Will, on the other hand, all takes place in the present, unfolding from moment to moment. The former might be thought of as a long short story, the latter as a short novel. Both are beautifully crafted: Ordinary Love solidly successful, Good Will memorably so.

As Ordinary Love opens, Rachel Kinsella, the fifty- two-year-old narrator, is cleaning her house in anticipation of a reunion. The setting—a small Midwestern town, a big old house with chestnut trees and a garden—seems idyllic, exemplifying a fundamental American dream. Within a few pages, however, appears the first clue that all is not quite right: Joe, the narrator’s twenty-five-year-old son, has been living with her all summer because of a breakup with his girlfriend, a loss which devastated him. Rachel herself, who makes a comfortable living as an accountant for the state, was divorced when the oldest of her five children was ten, and has never remarried. The theme that begins to be developed here—paradise lost or revealed as illusory, not as a result of the encroachment of an outside force but because of some inner lack—is also profoundly American. Rachel lives in a house she loves and gets along well with the four of her children who live near enough to see or call. It is the arrival of the fifth—Joe’s identical twin brother Michael, who for the past two years has been teaching in India—which sparks the crisis. “There are things we can do in our family,” Rachel remarks “—eat peacefully, lend money, confide—but reunions are fraught with echoes.”

When Michael arrives, “he is not Joe’s twin, but a shadow of Joe, dressed all in white cotton and cadaverous.” The sense of loss is immediate: “We have gotten back less than we sent out.” In fact, Michael is suffering from amebic dysentery. In Rachel and her former husband, the inner failings were moral and spiritual, echoed here and throughout the story by a physical illness.

Woven through the events of the next day or two—a picnic, a dinner with Rachel’s oldest daughter Ellen and her family—are Rachel’s reminiscences. Here is revealed the cause of her divorce: She had an affair with a writer who lived down the road, of which she informed her husband; he in turn knocked her down, sold the house without telling her, and took the children off to England. Meanwhile, within a week after her husband left, the man with whom she had the affair stopped talking to her. Her goals at that point were to get a “professional degree and a good job,” and to gain “at least partial custody of at least some of [hen children.” In these she succeeded: with the children because their father, a pediatrician with an international reputation for his research, was too absorbed in his own affairs to pay steady attention to them, so that over the years, as it suited his convenience, they drifted back into her life. Superficially, therefore, she has put her life back together, but she has never let herself become seriously involved with another man, and there remains a crucial piece of unfinished business: She has never explained to the children the circumstances of her divorce, thus depriving them of essential information about their own early lives.

Her confession—at night, on the deck behind her daughter’s house—provokes revelations in turn from her children, and teaches her what her rash behavior did to them. Ellen tells how, when they were with their father in London, he went away and left them alone for a week—having given them the impression that he would be gone for no longer than a day or two—and returned, after a nightmarish time for the children, only as a car from a children’s home was arriving to take them away. This leads to further reminiscences: from Joe, for example, of “how he used to smack us and then say that we had just run into his fist.” Finally Michael tells a story of his own recent past: that in India he had been engaged to a woman whom he loved, but had an obsessive affair with an older, married woman, leading to an abortion and the destruction of his relationship. Soon, he says, he will be going away again—to teach in Korea, where he may very well remain. Rachel is now left to contemplate “the history of my children in my absence, at the mercy of their father. Didn’t I know he was like this, unrestrained and blind to the consequences of his own actions? His enthusiasm for family life was the passion, I see now, of a true egomaniac, whose wife and children and dogs are the limbs of his own body.” Her bleak conclusion is that she has given her children “the two cruelest gifts I had to give . . the experience of perfect family happiness, and the certain knowledge that it could not last.”

Out of this compellingly detailed narrative a number of themes emerge. Most strikingly, Ordinary Love is a feminist story. Rachel tells of a cousin who in the early years of the century ran away from her husband: He “was prosperous and sober, and didn’t beat her, so it was obvious to everyone that she must be insane for leaving him. They brought her back and put her in a state mental hospital.” Rachel’s is essentially the same story brought up to date: No one can understand her need to be free of “that grating supervision, the constant call for my attention and response.” She is left...

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Form and Content

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

In “Ordinary Love” and “Good Will”, the reader is presented with protagonists whose lives, and the lives of those closest to them, have been irrevocably altered by a chain of events that they set in motion years before. The novellas capture these characters at the point in time when the consequences of their previous actions are made clear to them in ways heretofore unrealized. Under the apparent calm of the familiar domestic routines described in each story runs an undercurrent of betrayal, neglect, and violence. The reader’s shock at these events parallels the protagonists’ sudden awareness of their culpability in generating the destructive forces that ravaged their family life.

Ordinary Love opens with Rachel Kinsella and son Joe preparing for the return of Michael, Joe’s twin. To curb their anxieties, Rachel and Joe busy themselves with the mundane tasks of cleaning the house and fixing the lawnmower. Rachel’s love of domestic life can be seen in the careful and loving way in which she polishes her house; her love for her children can be seen in her memories of their childhood. One is also introduced to Ellen, Rachel’s oldest child, coming to know her not only from her own words and actions but also from her mother’s reminiscences of her as a child. In fact, readers learn most of what they know about the Kinsella family from Rachel’s reflections on the twenty years since her divorce from the children’s father, Pat.

Almost casually, Rachel reveals that the cause of her divorce was an affair that she had to escape from the oppressive control her husband exerted over her life. When Rachel confesses her infidelity, Pat’s anger conceives the perfect revenge—he severs her relationship with the children by sending them to England, isolating her from them for the next ten years.

This is a family that has survived the pain of separation. The individuals in it have developed idiosyncratic coping mechanisms—Ellen’s casual disregard for her mother’s privacy and her...

(The entire section is 835 words.)


(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

The singular and defining characteristic of Jane Smiley’s style is attention to detail, a trait that is more than simply a testament to her craftsmanship; it is a direct outgrowth of the views that she holds about the relationship between women and literature.

For Smiley, the network of relationships within the family provides fertile territory to map new ways of portraying women and of developing narrative techniques. She extols mothers’ natural talents for observation; her own prose in an example of the deliberate honing and channeling of this talent into art. The leanness of her style attests the care that she takes in weighing each word and phrase to determine its worthiness to convey the meaning that she intends—the same care a mother would demonstrate in tending to a child, the same deliberate strokes a woman would use in polishing pegged-maple floors. For Smiley, the routines familiar to women in their everyday lives can be the foundation of a new literature written by and for them. She enthusiastically anticipates other women writers following her lead in transforming the patterns of their lives into new forms of literary expression.

Central to her vision of the future for women’s literature is the belief that women must be treated in literature as autonomous adults, free of the stereotypes created for them by others’ needs. In Smiley’s opinion, the excitement of the future lies in women writing women’s stories in forms unique to women.

Throughout her works, one finds women who are seeking to discover the limits of their intellect, women whose journeys take them beyond the borders of convention. It is Smiley’s unique contribution to women’s literature that she has pinpointed this juncture and identified the paths to be forged in the future. Her belief, reiterated as variations on the same theme in many of her works, that humans are driven by the fundamental urges of desire and will are reassuring. Even though the consequences of the free exercise of those urges can be painful, they can also lead to new depths of understanding.


(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Brandmark, Wendy. “Abnormal Conformists.” The Times Literary Supplement, April 27, 1990, 456. Argues that these two novellas portray individuals who choose not to conform to society’s expectations.

Humphreys, Josephine. “Perfect Family Self-Destructs.” The New York Times Book Review, November 5, 1989, 1. Compares these novellas to troubled dreams—sharp in focus and short in duration. Appreciates Smiley’s controlled use of language and her ability to maintain a sympathetic attitude for characters who create their own destruction.

MacLachlan, Suzanne. “Kitchen Table Tales of Desire and Will.” The Christian Science Monitor, October 30, 1989, 13. Sees these stories as “tales that highlight the destructive nature of desire and will.” Concludes that one’s life and those of the people one loves are ultimately controllable.

Rubin, Merle. “Storytelling, The Second Oldest Profession.” The Wall Street Journal, November 29, 1989, p. A12. Finds these novellas worthy and workmanlike in execution but lacking in excitement. Attributes each protagonist’s downfall to pride.

Smiley, Jane. “Can Mothers Think?” In The True Subject: Writers on Life and Craft, edited by Kurt Brown. St. Paul, Minn.: Graywolf Press, 1993. A lecture delivered at an Aspen writers’ conference. Smiley explores the significance of being a woman writer.