four-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
57-Mar-Apr-2012
By: 
Alan Bennett
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Stories

A-SmutBritish playwright Alan Bennett is best known for his two plays, The Madness of George III (1991) and The History Boys (2004). He is also the author of the novella, The Uncommon Reader (4 of 5 Stars Selection Jan/Feb 2008), which imagines Queen Elizabeth II discovering the pleasures of reading in her later years.

The Story: In these two novellas, Bennett explores people's secret desires. In "The Greening of Mrs. Donaldson," a 55-year-old widow works as a medical school demonstrator. Her job requires that she perform various roles, including those of a sick patient and a grieving wife, to help students improve their bedside manners and diagnostic skills. When she takes on two lodgers who have trouble making the rent, they offer her an alternative payment that shifts her world entirely. In "The Shielding of Mrs. Forbes," the title character dotes on her son, Graham, and despises her daughter-in-law, Betty, who she feels is too plain for her beloved boy. But when Graham's homosexual lover blackmails him, Betty must shield her family from disaster.
Picador. 160 pages. $14. ISBN: 9781250003164

Los Angeles Times 4 of 5 Stars"[A] bit of (apparently) light farce that packs an unlikely punch. ... What both narratives share is a sense of the life that is lived beneath the surface, in which our longings, desires, predilections don't have anything to do, necessarily, with our public fa?ßades." David L. Ulin

Milwaukee Jrnl Sentinel 4 of 5 Stars"In other hands ... the two stories of repression, role-playing, transgressive sexuality and blackmail in Alan Bennett's Smut might have ended in violence. But Bennett makes witty comedy of these tales, which are nowhere near as prurient as the cheeky title suggests." Jim Higgins

Minneapolis Star Tribune 4 of 5 Stars"[R]ich in innuendo and wordplay. ... Though both stories revolve around risqu?© behavior from unlikely characters, Bennett's real aim is not to titillate, but to show in clever and risible fashion that ‚Äòpeople are peculiar.'" Kathryn Lang

New York Times 4 of 5 Stars"[A]lways enjoyable and often hilarious. ... As Mr. Bennett sees it, most people are prisoners in their lives and badly need releasing--and, if so, his Mrs. Donaldson is a prime example of belated liberation." Benedict Nightingale

NY Times Book Review 4 of 5 Stars"Bennett may sprinkle double entendres and fire off the occasional Tourette-like burst of blunt common nouns, but he really does manage to startle his supposedly unshockable modern readers with each story's very premise, slowly revealed and, yes, smutty." Thomas Mallon

Washington Post 4 of 5 Stars"[A] devilishly charming pair of novellas. ... The vain Graham and his priggish mother seem destined to get their comeuppance, but Mrs. Forbes has secrets of her own that make the title of this delightfully sly comedy especially ironic." Nora Krug

Critical Summary

Critics weren't quite sure what to expect from a book titled Smut, but they were pleased to note that the novellas lived up to both Bennett's stellar reputation and, surprisingly, the collection's title. One of Britain's most beloved writers, Bennett "skewers commonly accepted ideas of middle-class decorum, showing that often our dull lives can use a spicy ‘holiday from respectability' or, as the Brits say, ‘a one-off'" (Minneapolis Star Tribune). Both stories are improbable, certainly, but so what? The novellas demonstrate how misleading appearances can be; Bennett dares us to look at the matrons in our own neighborhood and not wonder what lurks behind the calm, collected public facades.