Synopses & Reviews
Greed. Envy. Sex. Property. In her subversively funny and genuinely moving new novel, Jane Smiley nails down several American obsessions with the expertise of a master carpenter.
Forthright, likable Joe Stratford is the kind of local businessman everybody trusts, for good reason. But it's 1982, and even in Joe's small town, values are in upheaval: not just property values, either. Enter Marcus Burns, a would-be master of the universe whose years with the IRS have taught him which rules are meant to be broken. Before long he and Joe are new best friends and partners in an investment venture so complex that no one may ever understand it. Add to this Joe's roller coaster affair with his mentor's married daughter. The result is as suspenseful and entertaining as any of Jane Smiley's fiction.
"Joe's sense of who he has become is oddly muffled, a quality that infects the novel as a whole as if the author were unable to decide what, finally, her characters are guilty of, or how hard they deserve to fall." The New Yorker
"[A] solid, smart, keen-eyed novel that nonetheless lacks some of the strengths readers associate most closely with Jane Smiley....Smiley's gifts have always been as much intellectual as emotional." Christopher Caldwell, Slate
"Smiley's amusing plot is charged with energy, her sense of time and place is on target, and her research into the ways and means of real estate development is seamlessly integrated....This absorbing book will appeal to a wide variety of readers." Library Journal
"Scathing, uproarious....With its surprises and reversals, and its robust realism pushed step-by-step toward comic hyperbole, Good Faith affirms one's faith in the venerable virtues of the satirical novel." The Seattle Times
"Admittedly, reading Good Faith
requires a bit of the titular quality; you need to be willing to entertain the notion that a book in which the characters argue about interest rates and 'the shakeout of the banking system' can be entertaining. It can....As with most of Smiley's novels, the writing is fresh and breezy if not beautiful. And has she yet received the credit she's due for writing terrific sex scenes earthy, profane, joyful and detailed, but never self-important? Good Faith
is rich in them; sex matters a lot to Joe in an entirely believable way, but he doesn't need to get, well, hysterical about it....Good Faith
is an inventive and generous investigation into the joys and perils of building something a house, a trusted local business, a marriage, a community and well worth the investment." Laura Miller, Salon.com
(read the entire Salon review
"Ultimately, it's clear that the great tragedy of this period for Joe is the loss of emotional, not financial opportunity. Readers over 30 know his real estate project will fail, along with the nation's banking system, but the value of an average joe's character requires a risk/reward evaluation that only a fine novel can calculate. Smiley has invested her best talent in this work, and you can buy it in good faith."
Ron Charles, The Christian Science Monitor
(read the entire CSM review
Reading Group Guide
1. Having given Joe Stratford the role of narrator, Smiley gives her readers a great deal of access to Joes thoughts. What difference does it make that the novel is narrated in first person rather than third? Why does Smiley give us the story from Joes perspective?
2. What kind of a person is Joe? What does he think about himself, his marriage to Sherry [pp. 15-16], and his life? How accurate are his judgments about himself and other people?
3. Look closely at a couple of scenes in which Felicity and Joe are alone together. What specific details of Smileys writing style affect the readers experience of their love affair? Does Felicity love Joe? Does he love her? If he does, why does he not pursue her more actively?
4. Discuss the main elements of Felicitys character. What is admirable about her? To what degree is she a typical dissatisfied homemaker motivated by boredom and restlessness? Is she playing a game with Joe for her own amusement? How important is the conversation between Felicity and Joe in which she tells him, “You do tempt me to find the limits of your kindness” [see pp. 141- 43]?
5. What do secondary yet vibrant characters like the Davids, Gottfried Nuelle, and George Sloan contribute to the novels world? Do they create a sense of realism? Are they there for comic relief? How important is humor in Smileys writing?
6. In what sense is Jane Smiley interested in exposing certain truths about small-town, middle-class America? What points does Good Faith raise about how ordinary people respond when they seem to see a chance to increase their wealth and raise their social status? What social concerns might have motivated Smiley to take on a novel about the 1980s? How is the present social climate different, and how is it similar, to those greedy years?
7. Is Joe a man who is looking for others to tell him what to do? Consider the descriptions of his relationship with Sally Baldwin and with his ex-wife Sherry. Consider his relationship with Marcus, and with Felicity. Is passivity a major flaw in Joe? Might it be considered a part of his charm?
8. What effect has Joes upbringing had on his character? Discuss his relationship with his parents and his rejection of their religious life. How strong a sense of ethics does Joe have? At what point, if any, does he begin to act and think more like Marcus?
9. How does Smiley present Marcus Burns, and how does she develop his character? What are his attractive qualities? Does Smiley imply that Marcus had talents that were somehow misdirected? What propels him into criminality?
10. What is Marcuss appeal to Joe? On what is their friendship based? On page 413 Joe describes the after-effects of Marcuss betrayal and wonders why, since Marcus had already received the money from the loan, he also took Joes savings. What might have been Marcuss reason for delivering this deeply personal blow to Joes self-esteem?
11. Is this novel concerned more with character or with plot? To what degree is the element of surprise important to the story? Is there a sense of inevitability about what is going to happen to Joe, and to Joes money? If so, how does this affect the reading experience? What, if anything, is surprising about the final chapters?
12. The novel raises interesting questions about real estate development, the value of the countryside, and ones sense of place. Can you infer Smileys feelings about the widespread transformation of the American landscape during such periods as the 80s? What human emotions drive the forces of change?
13. Is it surprising that central characters like Joe, Gordon, and Felicity escape prosecution? What conclusions can the reader draw from Felicitys involvement with Marcus and Jane?
14. Is it surprising that central characters like Joe, Gordon, and Felicity escape prosecution? What conclusions can the reader draw from Felicitys involvement with Marcus and Jane?
Q: What gave you the idea for Good Faith?
A: My boyfriend told me a story about some people he knew in the 1980s. His story meshed with thoughts I had already had about the failures of deregulation. I have always considered "James Watt" fighting words. In addition, I wanted to write another novel about what Barbara Ehrenreich used to call "the worst years of our lives."
Q: In reading Good Faith, one can't help but think about the recent events in Corporate America, Enron specifically. Was that on your mind as you wrote this novel?
A: I was almost finished with the novel when the Enron story broke, but as early as the California energy crisis of 2001, I was sure that there was some double dealing going on. Enron, the White House, and all of Bush's oil patch Republican friends seemed to be too cozy by half as far as I was concerned.
Q: Good Faith is full of details about house building, selling, development, Savings & Loans, etc. What kind of research went into this novel?
A: I read several books, including one called Fraud 101. I consulted my memory and the memories of lots of others. I have always been interested in houses and real estate.
Q: Many people think of the 1980s as a rather grim decade. Why did you want to tell this story against the backdrop of the 1980s, and do you think there are lessons we learned coming out of that time?
A: Actually, I think only intelligent people think of the 80s as a grim decade. I think too many people think of the 80s as lots of fun, or as a time when there was "a new dawn for America." I think of the 80s as the beginning of a tragic civic decline that resulted in the stolen election of 2000 and the national chaos and uneasiness that we have today. The 80s were when the government gave the corporations permission to do whatever they wanted, including not paying taxes, not following health and safety regulations, shamelessly exploiting the environment, not contributing in any way to the public good.
Q: This novel follows Horse Heaven. So, who do you like writing about more, animals or people?
A: Animals and animals with people.
Q: Good Faith picks up on some of the themes you wrote about in A Thousand Acres land, money, greed, good intentions on a very different landscape (Suburban New Jersey). What is it about land that can make people crazy?
A: The idea that it is limited, that all the good spots are almost taken.
Q: You last book was set in the world of horse racing. This book the world of real estate and investing. Both examine the idea of Risk and "Betting on a sure thing." So, do you think there is any such thing as a sure thing?
A: Change is a sure thing.
Q: So Jane, there are some very steamy sex scenes in Good Faith. I have to ask A) how the idea of sex fits in with the idea of risk and investment, and B)are these fun to write?
A: Sex fits in with everything.
B: These were, because I liked Felicity and Joey and I wanted them to have a good time.