Picks and Pans Review: The Age of Grief

updated 01/18/1988 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 01/18/1988 AT 01:00 AM EST

by Jane Smiley

The short stories in this collection hardly prepare a reader for the novella that gives the book its title. While they're sharply written, The Pleasure of Her Company, Lilly and Long Distance, which all center on single people looking with envy, perplexity or horror at the marriages in their orbit, end with letdowns, as if the author had run out of steam. The Age of Grief, however, is a haunting view of a marriage from the inside, a tale told by a betrayed husband full of humor and sadness and sound and quiet fury. The narrator is a dentist, Dr. Dave Hurst, "who wanted to be a dentist and have drama too." Dr. Dave's partner in the practice is his cool blond wife, Dana, whom he met in dental school and who was "terrifically enthusiastic about dental school or maybe the word is 'defiant.'...I took on Dana. I felt about her the way she felt about dental school. I dared her to dismiss me." The Age of Grief is made up of all the small, seemingly unimportant details that go to make up a marriage: the daily office routine, dinner preparation, trips to the store, trips to the country, late-night lies, Dr. Dave and his wife tending to their three young daughters. There's Lizzie, "who has been all eyes since birth"; Stephanie, "who has heard things first"; and Leah, "who sat up at five months and reached for the toys she wanted." "And so I have three separate regrets," says David when contemplating how the disintegration of the Hurst marriage is affecting his children. "What does Lizzie see? What does Stephanie hear? What yearning tension does Leah feel in my flesh when she snuggles against me? There is no hiding from them, is there?" Smiley knows how to make achingly vivid the feelings that come from the awful certainty that someone you love loves someone else. She has an unerring, unsettling ability to capture the rhythms of family life gone askew. (Knopf, $15.95)

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