Jane Smiley

"Good Faith"

(Reviewed by Shannon Bloomstran MAY 28, 2003)

Some people over the age of 30 remember the '80s for its excesses, including, but not limited to, really big hair and really synthesized music. It's a bit disconcerting to someone who graduated from high school in 1984 to hear my former favorites (yes, I'll admit it) Duran Duran and the Talking Heads played on our local "oldies" station. To others, the excesses of the '80s played out not in cans of Sebastian Shaper Hair Spray but in dollars and cents. Jane Smiley's latest novel, Good Faith tells the tale of those whose tastes ran more to Wall Street than Wall of Voodoo.

Read excerptJane Smiley is one of those authors like Margaret Atwood and Ann Patchett who is not content to sit back and write the same novel over and over again. This, her 12th, tells the story of a New England man overtaken by greed. Her most famous work is perhaps A Thousand Acres, the Pulitzer Prize winning retelling of King Lear. Others have been set in antebellum Kansas (The All-True Travels and Adventures of Lidie Newton), the world of horse racing (Horse Heaven), and a large land grant university (Moo). In those works and others, her characters and plot always seem to derive themselves from the meticulously researched setting. Good Faith is no different, with the plot unfolding as a result of a specific and well-described time and place, a small New England town in the early 1980's.

The narrator, Joe Stratford, is a likable small time Realtor in a small time town. Most people like Joe and trust him to help find them a nice place to live. We get the idea early on from the first person narration that while Joe is pleasant and trustworthy, he views himself as a man on the outside looking in. Joe lives in the town he grew up in, not too far from his elderly religious parents. He seems less a part of their family than of the boisterous Baldwin clan who have made them their "elected son." Joe does business with patriarch Gordon Baldwin, a local developer, is in business with goofy son Bobby and carries on a steamy and explicit affair with married daughter Felicity. Smiley writes convincingly in the voice of a man as Joe comes off as completely believable, even in the love scenes, although these were a bit graphic for my taste. There's no trace of an authorly voice hanging over the pages, which leaves the reader free to concentrate on Joe's downfall.

This downfall comes packaged in a Brooks Brothers' suit wearing former IRS agent, Marcus Burns. Marcus, an unctuous charmer who believes paying your bills on time sets you up as a patsy to the utility companies, soon talks his way into a development deal with Joe and Gordon Baldwin. They acquire a Salt Key Farm, a baronial estate and set out to turn the land into a luxury residential development, complete with wastewater treatment facility and clubhouse. Smiley explains the details of land development in exquisite detail, right down to the perking, which I thought was an old-timey way to make coffee, but turns out has something to do with water in the soil. She also seems well versed in the worlds of golf course building and gold speculation. It is to her great credit that she makes all of these technical details not only readable, but also understandable and even enjoyable. The attention she gives these small details endears Joe to the reader even that much more.

Of course if you have any financial sense at all, you know Salt Key will not turn out to be the golden goose, but Smiley manages to hook you in until the end. That is partly due to the character of Marcus. Joe himself knows he is trouble, but Marcus has the ability to discern the deficits in anyone's character and play up to those needs; the other characters know this is happening, but seem powerless to stop him. Joe, while well respected, is essentially friendless, so Marcus appeals to him less as a business partner than as a pal. Gordon Baldwin wants to move into the big big big time and escape his loud and slightly tawdry reputation in town. Marcus helps him to wrap the project in an aura of luxury. Smiley fills the novel with a cast of other interesting characters, from the gay couple (the Davids) who buy a house from Joe, to George Sloan, Joe's client who becomes obsessed with a run down home.

Told with a wistful, cautionary air, Smiley leaves clues that all will not end happily, although the end is different than I imagined. You can take it on "good faith," that this is a rich read, even though its characters are not.

  • Amazon readers rating: from 50 reviews

Read a chapter excerpt from Good Faith at MostlyFiction.com

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(Reviewed by Judi Clark MAY 11, 1998)

Between reading Moo and DeLillo's White Noise, I feel like I just went back to college!  I enjoyed Moo and was surprised at how long it took me to read it -- nearly three days, with two days of solid reading.  Smiley populates this book with a university microcosm.  At first, it's a little confusing, but it doesn't take long until you are into the swing of it and know these people (just like college). 

The book takes place during two semesters in the 1989-90 school year - when businesses are downsizing and even the state funded education system must trim. The book explores the implications of businesses funding "scientific" study and reminds us of the importance of the Land Grant Act. I think we too often relate a college education to a business degree and forget that there are many other reasons to attend college. I graduated from the University of New Hampshire, also a Land Grant College, where in my second year I had three Animal Science majors for housemates. Moo happily brought me back to this time in my life.

  • Amazon reader rating: from 84 reviews

"A Thousand Acres"

(Reviewed by Judi Clark FEB 9 1998)

I read this book at least two years ago, before it was turned into a movie, and I feel lucky I did. At least I was not prejudiced by Hollywood's sentimentalities. The book is far better than the movie (and who is surprised by this?). Families are complicated and Smiley explores this subject thoroughly while giving us a strong portrayal of farm life. The story has enough twists to keep it interesting, but I think the real value is learning about another lifestyle.  When I finished this book, I felt like I had lived on a farm!  

  • Amazon reader rating: from 212 reviews

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About the Author:

Jane SmileyJane Smiley was born in L.A. in 1949 but her family only lived there for one year before moving to St. Louis.  She grew up in St. Louis and went to Vassar college, graduating in 1971.  She went to graduate school in Iowa and taught at Iowa State University from 1981 to 1996. She won the Pulitzer Prize for A Thousand Acres in 1992. In 2001, she was inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Letters.

She lives in northern California.

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