The Smart One by Jennifer Close
Shelf Worth: 4/5
After the monstrosity that was our last book ("Hairy Care Bear" as one friend calls it), I'm relieved to be able to say in no uncertain terms that The Smart One is also The Good Choice For People Who Want To Read Without Upsetting Their Eyes Or Brains.
Close is the author of Girls in White Dresses, which I have been meaning to read since last summer and failed to entirely, but on the basis of this, her second novel, I will enjoy that just as much, because she does the three Ws so beautifully - warm, witty and waspish.
On the surface, this is a classic family saga, complete with an overbearing mother at its centre. Weezy Coffey is that mother: labelled the "smart" one by her parents to sister Maureen's "pretty", she has instead swapped the expected role and spent her life happily married and raising three children: Martha, working at J. Crew after leaving her nursing job, and whose therapist is getting as fed up with her as the reader; Claire, hiding in her apartment and slowly suffocating in debt after calling off her engagement, and pretty, younger Max, who is at college with his stunning girlfriend Cleo, and the familial silver spoon lodged well under his tongue.
Naturally, everything goes wrong and the children end up back at home under Weezy's feet and falling into their old, argumentative roles. Weezy, her spawn, and Cleo, thrown into the Coffey animal house, try desperately to figure out what to do next and how to avoid drowning in the meantime.
So yes - it sounds like a classic 90s chickflick. While it's insanely enjoyable to read, there is fortunately no knitting of quilts or meaningful holding of one another's hands while tears brim and lips compress. The Coffeys are a fabulous family because they are realistically, passive aggressively awful. Claire I instantly loved, because she calls out Martha's nonsense and also just makes me think of her Modern Family namesake, but in Martha, Close has written one of the best monsters I've read in ages.
We've all known a Martha: enjoys a drama too much, makes everything all about her, has all the self-awareness of a smug cat - one lovely line in which she angsts so much over the Thanksgiving dish she's making, until everyone compliments her on it and she looks down modestly and goes, "It's not that hard." AAAARRRRGHHH. She's beautifully, awfully-written.
This isn't a twisty-turny book, and any upsets are either clearly-marked or gentle, but this isn't what The Smart One is for. Close is quite simply a fantastic writer, and her observations about her women - each chapter is seen from the viewpoint of Weezy, Martha, Claire or Cleo - make you as keenly supportive of them as you want to throttle them. There's no cruelty in this book, either to the characters or (thankfully) to the reader, because this feels nicely close to real life.
I wish we heard more from Cleo. She gets a great backstory about everything leading up to meeting Max: her career-driven mother, Elizabeth (yet another smart woman), and her first college room mate who becomes anorexic. But later on she is rather cast to the side as someone things happen to, when she's so interesting I wish she'd do something instead. There's not an awful lot from Weezy's husband Will either - especially in later parts when Weezy gets carried away. But it comes down to this really: I looked forward to bus journeys so I could read this, I loved being an observer in the family's lives, and I'd happily read it again in a moment.