Ten Days in the Hills
Beginning Ten Days in the Hills with an epigraph from Giovanni Boccaccio’s Decameron: O, Prencipe Galeotto (1349-1351; The Decameron, 1620), a collection of one hundred stories told by ten persons escaping the plague at a queen’s villa in the countryside around Florence, Italy, Jane Smiley encourages her readers to make comparisons between her novel and the earlier medieval text. Like The Decameron, Smiley’s text includes ten people who are brought together and end up telling stories. In Ten Days in the Hills, however, the convening of friends and relatives of Nathan “Max” Maxwell occurs rather arbitrarily one morning at his home in the Hollywood Hills. Though he and his new girlfriend Elena Sigmund are expecting a visit from Max’s boyhood friend Charlie Mannheim, they soon find that Max’s daughter, Isabel; Elena’s son, Simon; Max’s former wife, Zoe Cunningham; Zoe’s current lover, Paul Schmidt; Max’s agent, Stoney Whipple; and Max’s former mother-in-law’s best friend, Cassie Marshall, all show up for breakfast one morning. Fortunately, his former mother-in-law Delphine Cunningham lives in a guest house on the premises and has helped welcome the guests. The group members make themselves at home in Max’s house for a few days, then, at Stoney’s urging, they eventually retreat to an even more luxurious home owned by a mysterious Russian known only as Mike, who wants Max to write and direct a movie about fifteenth century Cossacks in the Ukraine.
Though The Decameron features a contrived situation in that the ten Italian visitors are required to tell stories on assigned subjects such as love and death, Smiley’s characters are not obliged by their host to entertain with a tale. Given their close proximity and talkative natures, however, each member of the group finds it impossible to keep quiet. At the beginning of the novel, each day seems to be tied directly to an individual character, and the consciousness of that character serves as a filtering agent for the action of that day. Thus, while readers learn particular details about that person, they are also exposed to the multitude of stories told by others in the presence of that person. For example, day one opens with Max and Elena in bed, but Max notes the subtleties of the room and the woman, meets the guests, and relays important character information to Elena. Throughout the first part of the novel, Smiley loosely follows this pattern, giving many of the main characters specific focus, but by the time the characters move to Mike’s house for the final four days, the narration becomes more omniscient and fragmentary, allowing stories and storytellers to alternate narratives quickly without a clear focus on one character.
In both Max’s and Mike’s houses, characters divide themselves into different sleeping arrangements: Known couples such as Elena and Max share a bedroom, and others sleep alone or with another character, unbeknownst to the rest of the house. Isabel, for example, has been having a sexual relationship with Stoney, who is fifteen years her senior, since she was a teenager. During the ten days chronicled in the novel, he spends every night in her bedroom, though others in the house are not aware of this arrangement until the two purposefully choose a room together at Mike’s house. Because of the intimacy of the bedroom scenes, the characters often reveal private stories when they are with a partner. These stories relay personal philosophies, childhood dramas, hopes, dreams, and fears. Later, the group meets for meals and a movie in the evening, thus opening the possibilities for more embedded stories within the larger narrative. In these larger gatherings, Elena argues against the Iraq War, Cassie recounts unusual events she has heard from others, and the group generally discusses broader topics.
When the group moves to Mike’s house, however, the novel moves more quickly, generally relying on bedroom scenes to reveal what is happening inside the house and the minds of its inhabitants. Because much of the action and conversation in the later fourth of the book occurs in bedrooms, these vignettes are often more...
(The entire section is 1715 words.)