Bookmarks Issue: 
Jane Smiley

A-Ten Days in the HillsWhen the Iraq War begins in 2003, what does a group of eclectic pleasure seekers do? It seeks refuge by partying in a Hollywood Hills mansion, of course. In a modern-day reworking of Giovanni Boccaccio’s 14th-century Decameron, in which ten people flee plague-ridden Florence to a country villa and tell 100 stories over ten days, Jane Smiley’s ten characters recount their lives to each other. The group includes the host, Max, a fading movie director; his lover Elena; Zoe, his movie-star ex-wife; Zoe’s guru lover and her Jamaican mother; Max and Zoe’s PC daughter Isabel and her lover (Max’s agent); and others. While those in The Decameron share bawdy morality tales, the ten characters here gossip and discuss their diets, movies, Hollywood, movies, the war, and movies—and engage in lots of sex.
Knopf. 464 pages. $26. ISBN: 1400040612

Newsday 4 of 5 Stars
"The same portion of the American public who put up with My Dinner With Andre—indeed, who clutched it to their bosoms—will embrace Ten Days in the Hills, the talkiest book in years." Marion Winik

San Diego Union-Tribune 4 of 5 Stars
"In spite of the laughs and titillating scenes, Smiley, like Boccaccio, seems to be making a moral statement about liberty in repressive times: the erotic—in its physical or written form—as political transgression. For a brief moment in time, Hollywood becomes human, smart, full of creative potential." Wendy L. Smith

Dallas Morning News 3.5 of 5 Stars
"In a book like this, you don’t read to find out what happens next, because not much of consequence does. The pleasure a reader experiences comes from getting to know the individual characters, closeted together here, and watching them interact." Anne Morris

Washington Post 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Since this is Hollywood, one of the tale’s more illicit pleasures is the way everyone frames everything in terms of a film: actual movies and the fictional ones that Smiley concocts. … Smiley has her tongue firmly in her cheek and uncharacteristic patience with the superficialities and self-importance of her Hollywood movers and shakers." Chris Bohjalian

San Antonio Exp-News 2 of 5 Stars
"It’s often hard to remember who’s who in this sprawling saga, where all of the dialogue sounds as if it’s been written for the stage. … Smiley’s gift for the sudden, insightful observation or sparkling turn-of-phrase is still evident." Jennifer Roolf Laster

New York Times 0.5 of 5 Stars
"These are all spoiled, cosseted people with few responsibilities: none of them seems the least bit flummoxed at the thought of dropping everything to spend 10 days at this house party. … Their chief preoccupation seems to be navel-gazing and analyzing their navel-gazing and talking about their analysis of their navel-gazing." Michiko Kakutani

Milwaukee Jrnl Sentinel 0.5 of 5 Stars
"Very little happens, except for a surprise near the end that seems to have been thrown in because the author couldn’t figure out how to tie up a loose thread in what passes for plot. The book is clearly meant to be social satire, but satire involves holding human folly up to ridicule, and Smiley, who lives in northern California, seems unsure of her point of view." Whitney Gould

Critical Summary

Jane Smiley, who won the 1992 Pulitzer Prize for A Thousand Acres, has written on a range of topics: horses, midwestern university life, real estate, Greenland, and, most recently, literature (13 Ways of Looking at the Novel, 3.5 of 5 Stars Jan/Feb 2006). Ten Days, a social satire, tackles the superficial lives of Hollywood denizens—to mixed acclaim. Many reviewers were sufficiently entertained by watching Smiley’s set of spoiled, if smart, individuals interact and ruminate on their self-involved concerns; others found the conversations hackneyed. While Smiley’s use of the Iraq war created some enlightened discussion, it also seemed like a heavy-handed device. Critics similarly diverged on the characters, which reflected their own view of the novel: some characters stood out; others did not. A few learned important lessons at the end of ten days—but most did not.