In a recent meeting, my boss, literary agent Molly Friedrich, told a client she needed to write a sex scene. The novel in question buzzed with an unrequited energy, but we wanted the romantic payoff, too. The author blushed and said she couldn’t, too worried she’d end up on Literary Review’s Bad Sex in Fiction award list.
“Read some D. H. Lawrence,” I said. “Or Elena Ferrante. Anaïs Nin.”
“You know who can write a damn good sex scene?” Molly said. “Jane Smiley. Go read Good Faith. Then start writing.”
“What?” I said. “Really?” I’d read embarrassingly few Smiley novels, but those I knew I admired for their emotional restraint.
Still, I shouldn’t have been surprised. In his October 2014 New York Times profile, Charles McGrath describes Smiley’s oeuvre as annoyingly wide-ranging, that she is “the sort of writer who secretly drives other writers a little bit crazy. . . . [P]rolific and successful, untroubled by neuroses or blockages. . . . She seemingly writes the way her idol Dickens did—as easily as if it were breathing.”
Smiley tackles a different genre with each book: she’s written an epic, a romance, a detective novel, and is best known for the tragic A Thousand Acres, her Pulitzer Prize–winning King Lear retelling. Set against the ambition and greed of the McMansion boom of the 1980s, Good Faith represents a departure from purposeful genre play, as Smiley set out to write “a simple story essentially about one guy.”
Yet Smiley couldn’t help but flirt with and subvert the marriage plot—the love life in question belonging to the town’s honest, nice-guyJoey Stratford. He’s a divorced real estate agent working for Gordon Baldwin, the father of his deceased high school sweetheart, Sally. Gordon’s own sons—one an irritable, suspicious man, the other a bumbling fool—aren’t fit to inherit his modest real estate empire. It’s Joey, the chosen one, whom Gordon trusts. Despite the passing of time and the birth of the next generation, the Baldwins often wonder what Sally would have been like had she lived. They describe confidence and liveliness as Sally-esque qualities. They collectively sigh, lamenting that Joey “would have been perfect for Sally.” This is a complex family and a complex book, dealing with the lasting repercussions of loss.
Joey has always overlooked Felicity, the married, youngest Baldwin. She’s a whip-smart woman with an adventurous streak and, Joey soon learns, a sybaritic, yes, please attitude toward sex and life. Felicity approaches Joey for an affair. Smiley writes without judgment, infusing a certain amount of sweetness to the adultery: Joey awakening, disturbed but aroused by how Felicity kisses just as Sally had. Felicity perplexes him and instills an unsettling sense of longing in him; once after parting, Joey remarks the night “felt lonely in an unaccustomed way.” Laugh-out-loud moments are strewn throughout. The two agree postcoital lovers shouldn’t fall asleep in one another’s arms; rather, they should order bloody room-service steaks, or go out for burgers. They are ravenous, in life and in love, as was I in devouring Smiley’s candid and revelatory prose. When Joey sees his ex-wife—a moment he doesn’t want to admit stings—he finds immense joy in knowing he no longer shares his inner life with the woman: “I had thought, I have a secret, and you may look hard at my face and wonder all you want but I will not tell it to you.”
Good Faith is a layered, engulfing book. Smiley’s writing is clear as a just-washed window on a house up for sale. With most of the book behind me, I started worrying, wondering how Smiley could possibly reach a satisfying resolution in so few pages—the housing development these men invested in growing more complex with every passing chapter. Yet again I shouldn’t have been surprised when she did pull it off. We’re in the hands of a master here. Read this book for its vicarious rush—for characters who will either hit it rich or go bankrupt; fall in lasting love or get found out; on their worst behavior and at their best; to upend your notions of trust and betrayal. Real estate has never been sexier.
Nichole LeFebvre manages foreign rights at The Friedrich Agency. In 2013 she won The L Magazine’s Literary Upstart competition and was published in their Summer Fiction issue. Her writing has also appeared in The Toast, Gigantic Sequins, Necessary Fiction, and Bustle.com.
Greed. Envy. Sex. Property. In her subversively funny and genuinely moving new novel, Jane Smiley nails down several American obsessions with the expertise of a master carpenter. Forthright, likable Joe Stratford is the kind of local businessman everybody trusts, for good reason. But it’s 1982, and even in Joe’s small town, values are in upheaval: not just property values, either. Enter Marcus Burns, a would-be master of the universe whose years with the IRS have taught him which rules are meant to be broken. Before long he and Joe are new best friends—and partners in an investment venture so complex that no one may ever understand it. Add to this Joe’s roller coaster affair with his mentor’s married daughter. The result is as suspenseful and entertaining as any of Jane Smiley’s fiction.