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Ordinary Love & Good Will    by Jane Smiley order for
Ordinary Love & Good Will
by Jane Smiley
Order:  USA  Can
Anchor, 2007 (1989)
Hardcover, Softcover

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* * *   Reviewed by Rheta Van Winkle

Jane Smiley can take the merest wisp of a story and make it so interesting that you have a hard time putting it down. Ordinary Love & Good Will are two novellas that seem to be simple depictions of rather normal situations. They're stories about families, both of which develop slowly, the depths of the characters emerging from the beautifully drawn settings, little by tantalizing little. In both cases, by the end of the story we've learned about shocking events.

Ordinary Love tells the story of Rachel Kinsella, her husband, and their five children. We learn early on that Rachel and her husband Pat were divorced many years ago, but what happened to their marriage is revealed gradually as Rachel tells her story and learns more about events that occurred when her children were away from her. At the beginning of the novella, Rachel and one of her twin sons, Joe, now twenty-five, are anxiously awaiting the arrival of the other twin, Michael, who is coming home to the U.S. after spending two years teaching in India. As the family comes together to greet Michael, Rachel shares her side of what happened when she left their father, and Michael, Joe, and their older sister Ellen tell Rachel how life really was after she left. The laying of blame no longer seems certain by the end of the story.

Good Will begins with Robert Miller, self-sustaining farmer, telling his story to a woman who is writing a book about innovative gardening. Bob and his family, wife Liz and son Tom, live on a farm that Bob was able to buy cheaply after returning from Vietnam. He has built and planted everything on the farm: the house, outbuildings, orchards, gardens, even restoring or building the furniture from scratch. His wife cooks on a wood burning stove, spins wool into yarn, knits, sews, cans, and performs all the labor that a farmer's wife would have done in the early twentieth century. They have no electricity, no telephone, no automobile, and Bob trades labor or goods for the little money they need for such things as property tax and school supplies. Tom is seven and is picked up by a school bus for second grade in the nearby small town of Moreton.

The family's life seems idyllic, if difficult, but no one seems to mind the hard work. They have fun ice skating and swimming on a pond on the farm, and Tom is raising a pony that he loves dearly. Problems come because of Tom's attendance at the school. He destroys another child's new dolls, and this is the beginning of a whole series of crises for the Millers. It's hard to put the book down as events snowball toward the end.

Jane Smiley has written some funny books, but the tragic is frequently just below the surface. While there is little humor in these novellas, they read more as pleasant stories about good people who are overtaken by events than as tragedies, but perhaps that is really the meaning of a tragedy. I loved Ordinary Love & Good Will, and because of the beautifully descriptive titles, I'll remember exactly what they were about for a long time.

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