The extremely talented and ever-surprising Jane Smiley models her lustrous 11th novel, Ten Days in the Hills, on Boccaccio’s Decameron with the same confident grace that she built A Thousand Acres on the framework of King Lear. Again, she deftly transposes the central themes and rich atmosphere of a literary classic to contemporary America, but this time with very different results. Ten Days in the Hills is as sunny and indolent as A Thousand Acres was brooding.
In Boccaccio’s 14th-century original, 10 prosperous Florentines retreat from their plague-ravaged city to relax and tell bawdy stories. Lacking an epidemic, Smiley sets her novel in the spring of 2003, the early days of the United States’ war with Iraq. That her characters — pampered Los Angelenos preoccupied with the movie business, vegan diets, political correctness, and their exuberant sex lives — should feel profoundly shaken by this far-off war suggests not so much exquisitely refined consciences as self-importance. And, of course, the conflict is never quite dreadful enough to keep them from their orgasms or artichoke bisque. Most of them, anyway.
The novel begins as Max, a middle-aged film director, and his girlfriend, Elena, the author of Here’s How: To Do Everything Correctly!, have been trying, and failing, to make love. (Elena worries Iraq is affecting Max’s potency.) No matter; they arise to find that visitors are descending on Max’s sprawling home. Among them: Max’s ”pop icon and sex goddess” ex-wife, Zoe, and her yogi boyfriend, Paul; Max and Zoe’s grown daughter, Isabel; Isabel’s longtime secret lover, Stoney, who also happens to be Max’s agent; and Elena’s 20-year-old son, Simon, who has come to town to play the part of a penis in an experimental film — a role he happily carries over to the house party. Max’s childhood buddy Charlie, a prig from New Jersey, also turns up, apparently just to irritate everyone with his defense of the Bush administration. (Did Smiley have to give this thankless job to the stupidest character in the book?) For the next 10 days, these characters float ”far out in a sea of languor,” sipping wine, watching movies, cooking, and, above all, talking and making love.
Smiley writes about these last two pastimes with gusto. Both erotic interludes and conversations — about spirituality, Hugh Grant’s effortless manliness, politics, near-death experiences — abruptly begin, subside, overlap, climax, or gently fall apart. Not a lot seems to happen, but amid the chat and canoodling, as in real life, you later perceive that tectonic shifts in the various relationships have quietly occurred throughout this lazy idyll and Smiley’s luxurious novel. A-