Themes

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Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 416

Jane Smiley's 1989 collection, Ordinary Love & Good Will merge the themes of family and decisions.

The protagonist of Ordinary Love is Rachel Kinsella, a 52-year-old divorcée and mother of five children. Her previous extramarital affair is causes the breakup of her marriage and her temporary estrangement from her five...

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Jane Smiley's 1989 collection, Ordinary Love & Good Will merge the themes of family and decisions.

The protagonist of Ordinary Love is Rachel Kinsella, a 52-year-old divorcée and mother of five children. Her previous extramarital affair is causes the breakup of her marriage and her temporary estrangement from her five children. She confesses the affair to her children, who react with a combination of surprise and sympathy. Some of her children confess to her in turn. Her oldest daughter, Ellen, reveals what it had been like to live with their father, who took his children to England after the divorce and at one point abandoned them for three days. One of Rachel's sons, Michael, confesses to having had an affair with a married woman. Rachel realizes at this point more than even the rippling effects of her affair.

The protagonist of Good Will is veteran Bob Miller, who lives with his wife, Liz, and son, Tommy on an expansive and isolated homestead in rural Pennsylvania. He lives a life committed to self-reliance, and makes his own furniture and grows his own food.

Soon at school their son Tommy starts bullying a black girl, Annie. Annie's mother Lydia Harris is professionally distinguished, wealthy, and tactful. She thanks Bob and Liz for trying to make amends, accepting their apology and asking for friendship.

The confrontation caused by Tommy's public behavior invites Bob back into the world of American consumerism via Lydia Harris, whose house he can't help but admire. By the end of the novella, Tommy's adolescent rage and confusion has caused him to set fire to the Harris' home. The insurance company's pursuit of reparations forces Bob to sell their homestead, and the family moves into an apartment, all while undergoing therapy together. Bob admits that he was misguided in raising their son in the confines of the homestead, without a car or telephone.

Though the stories are very different, Rachel and Bob share similarities that highlight the stories' joint themes. First, they are both adequately intelligent. Both are well-spoken in their narratives and successful on their own terms. Rachel has a home of which she is proud and has a job working for the state. Bob has managed to live on a meager income and provide for his family. Both protagonists, too, love their families immensely, which renders the novellas a bit tragic. The respective stories showcase each protagonist's grief at having failed their children as a result of personal decisions that were short-sighted or misguided.

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