This is a rather cryptic and mysterious book. It reads like poetry and explores the "messed up" mind of Laney, a suburban housewife and the protagonist. I Smile Back has an air of Sylvia Plath and Kate Chopin but it is not as artistically or engagingly written.
The book is structured like a play in three sections:
"Act One: North Jersey, Labor Day, 2002"
"Act Two: North Jersey, Five Weeks Later"
The setting of New Jersey is average enough but extremely important. The suburban location is important to the overall theme of the book and Laney's mental development. Does middle class living imply a happy and fulfilling life? The quote at the beginning of the book answers this question: "Show me a single wound on earth that love has healed" (Jim Harrison). The setting and tone of the book has an intense air of depression that drags the reader into the depth's of Laney's hopelessness.
Laney has everything a woman her age could want: a loving husband, two beautiful and intelligent children, good looks, and financial security (to name a few). Yet, it is not enough for Laney. She constantly feels smothered by her "perfect life." She has no friends, doesn't know her husband, and sees her mortality reflected in the faces of her children. She plays the perfect role of house wife, but it provides no reason for existing. As the novel progresses, the reader is drawn into Laney's mind as well as the mysteries of her past which play into her fears and influences a lot of her destructive actions.
Countering her destruction is Bruce, the ever "helpful" husband. They were teenage sweethearts, and he doesn't understand what happen to the woman he fell in love with. Even though he does everything to get her help, to cure the neuroses, he comes off as a pompous and controlling jerk. He doesn't understand that he is part of the problem. Laney does not want to be simply a wife and mother. Laney's original desires have changed as she's grown older, and her family cannot change with her.
The hardest aspect of the book, other than the utter hopelessness and depression, is the family life. Everyone is a victim and everyone gets hurt by Laney's use of drugs and promiscuous sleeping around. However, the people who are the most helpless to do anything, the people who should be protected from this shock of reality, are Laney's two children: Janey and Eli. The affects of Laney's neuroses messes up their development, as apparent with Eli's eye ticks. They can feel that something is wrong between mommy and daddy, but they cannot understand or help their parents. It is really depressing to see how children are affected by the sins of their parents. I felt like crying every time I read more and more about Laney's children.
This book is about people, most noticeably Laney, Bruce, and their children Janey and Eli. There is no traditional plot that leads us to a denouement. Instead, there are snapshots into one person's life. The pictures don't always connect chronological, though. While reading, I often felt like I was in a drunken stupor trying to connect the pieces to this puzzle.
The book deals with others trying to understand Laney's puzzling life, such as issues of psychology as well as rehabilitation. What the author thinks of psychologists and treatments is expressed by the predictable ending. For me, there were no surprises to this book. Everything happened the way I guessed. You never truly understand the human mind. That is life.
Overall, I recommend reading this book only if you are interested in the human mind, psychology, or are in the mood for a depressing and hopeless story. The style of writing is interesting with vivid details, but it doesn't compare with classic women author's who wrote about similar issues. For me, this is a modern day rewriting of The Awakening with all the filth, language, and medical jargon that embodies the 21st century.
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Adrianna Simone (Adrianna)
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"Koppelman's prose is as spare and powerful as poetry."-St. Petersburg Times, on A Mouthful of Air
In the follow-up to her acclaimed debut, A Mouthful of Air, which drew comparisons from critics to The Bell Jar and The Awakening, Amy Koppelman delivers an unrestrained statement on the modern suburban woman.
Laney Brooks acts out. Married with kids, she takes the drugs she wants, sleeps with the men she wants, and disappears when she wants. Lurking beneath Laney's composed surface is the impulse to follow in the footsteps of her father, to leave and topple her family's balance in the process.