Review

Ten Days in the Hills

by Jane Smiley



When I was about 10, my parents rented the film My Dinner with
Andre
. I sat with them to watch --- for about the first half
hour. After that I got up and left, declaring it the most boring
movie I had ever seen. What could possibly be so fascinating about
two guys eating dinner --- and just talking? Of course, when I saw
the movie again a couple of years ago, I not only made it to the
end but also was able to appreciate what the filmmakers were
attempting to accomplish with this little experimental film without
an apparent plot.

It's no accident that Pulitzer Prize-winning author Jane Smiley
uses My Dinner with Andre as a touchstone for her new
novel TEN DAYS IN THE HILLS. Near the beginning, as Max lies in bed
with his lover just before a flotilla of houseguests invade his
home for a 10-day house party, the slightly over-the-hill film
director muses that he'd love to make a movie called My
Lovemaking with Elena
, a two-hour flick during which a couple
would kiss and make love, but mostly have a long
conversation.

That's sort of what Smiley's entire new novel feels like --- a
long, sometimes rambling conversation filled with stories and
anecdotes, interrupted with brief erotic interludes. Like My
Dinner with Andre
, TEN DAYS IN THE HILLS is certainly not for
every reader; the lack of a traditional plot, the claustrophobic
feeling of being trapped in this house like the guests themselves,
and the fact that few of the characters are eminently likable can
make Smiley's latest effort a struggle at times. But her satirical
take on Hollywood, on modern whims, and on politics, reality and
art eventually delivers a kind of bittersweet wisdom that
transcends the characters' petty concerns.

Loosely based on Boccaccio's DECAMERON, a 14th-century collection
of novellas about a group of young women and men who flee to an
Italian villa for 10 days to escape the Black Death (Boccaccio's
work has also inspired countless other authors, from Chaucer to
Shakespeare, and is being adapted as a film), Smiley's novel also
takes place over a 10-day period and certainly incorporates
Boccaccio's lusty spirit and storytelling enthusiasm. In the case
of TEN DAYS IN THE HILLS, the setting is the Hollywood Hills and
the year is 2003, the day after the Academy Awards and the start of
the current Iraq war.

Joining Max and Elena at their Hollywood villa are, among others,
Max's ex-wife Zoe, a vividly beautiful actress and singer; her
current flame Paul, a yoga expert and healer; Max and Zoe's
daughter Isabel; Max's agent (and Isabel's secret lover) Stoney,
who is wracked by negative comparisons to his extremely successful
late father; Max's long-time best friend Charlie, who is reveling
in his newly-divorced status; and Elena's son Simon, who has gone
AWOL from his senior year in college in order to star in an
experimental student-directed pornographic film. Tensions run high,
long-buried secrets are disinterred and desires are reawakened.
What's more, countless stories are told, of films real and
imagined, made and not made, of dramas that have happened and that
are yet to unfold.

Throughout, Smiley maintains a sort of fondness for her eccentric,
superficial, occasionally maddening characters, which reveals
itself in a good-natured satirical tone that never really crosses
the line into meanness. A good example is a scene on the second
day, when one of the guests, trying to come up with an appropriate
evening menu, has to quiz the assembled company about who is
vegetarian, vegan, lactose-intolerant, low-fat, hot
pepper-intolerant, and so forth. By poking gentle fun at these
Hollywood types, Smiley avoids taking them too seriously while
making some general commentaries about modern fixations.

Although reading TEN DAYS IN THE HILLS might require some serious
adjustments from longtime fans who first knew the author from her
days writing about farm families and Midwestern university
politics, there is much to enjoy in Smiley's often-surprising
novel, which seems to point her career in yet another new
direction.

Reviewed by Norah Piehl on January 23, 2011

Ten Days in the Hills
by Jane Smiley

  • Publication Date: February 13, 2007
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Hardcover: 464 pages
  • Publisher: Knopf
  • ISBN-10: 1400040612
  • ISBN-13: 9781400040612