Synopses & Reviews
A glorious new novel from the Pulitzer Prize winner: a big, smart, bawdy tale of love and war, sex and politics, friendship and betrayal and the allure of the movies. With Giovanni Boccaccio's Decameron
as her model, Jane Smiley takes us through ten transformative, unforgettable days in the Hollywood hills.
It is the morning after the 2003 Academy Awards. Max an Oscar-winning writer/director whose fame has waned and his lover, Elena, luxuriate in bed, still groggy from last night's red-carpet festivities. They are talking about movies, talking about love, and talking about the war in Iraq, recently begun. But soon their house will be full of guests, and guests like these demand attention. There is Max's ex-wife, "the legendary Zoe Cunningham," a dazzling half-Jamaican movie star, with her new lover, the enigmatic healer, Paul (fraudulent? enlightened?). Max's agent, Stoney, a perhaps too easygoing version of his legendary agent father, can't stay away, and neither can Zoe and Max's daughter, Isabel, though she would prefer to maintain her hard-won independence. And of course there is the next-door neighbor, Cassie, who seems to know everyone's secrets.
As they share their stories of Hollywood past and present, watch films in Max's opulent screening room, gossip by the swimming pool, and tussle in the many bedrooms, the tension mounts, sparks fly, and Smiley delivers an exquisitely woven, virtuosic work a Hollywood novel as only she could fashion it, told with bravura, rich with delightful characters, spiced with her signature wit. It is a joyful, sexy, and wondrously insightful pleasure.
"Smiley (A Thousand Acres) goes Hollywood in this scintillating tale of an extended Decameron-esque L.A. house party. Gathering at the home of washed-up director Max the morning after the 2003 Academy Awards are his Iraq-obsessed girlfriend, Elena; his movie-diva ex-wife Zoe and her yoga instructor-cum-therapist-cum-boyfriend Paul; Max's insufferably PC daughter, Isabel, and his feckless agent, Stoney, who are conducting a secret affair; Zoe's oracular mother, Delphine; and Max's boyhood friend and token Republican irritant Charlie. They watch movies, negotiate their clashing diets and health regimens, indulge in a roundelay of lasciviously detailed sexual encounters and, most of all, talk holding absurd, meandering, beguiling conversation about movies, Hollywood, relationships, the war and the state of the world. Through it all, they compulsively reimagine daily life as art: Max dreams of making My Lovemaking with Elena, an all-nude, sexually explicit indie talk-fest inspired by My Dinner with Andre, but Stoney wants him to remake the Cossack epic Taras Bulba. Smiley delivers a delightful, subtly observant sendup of Tinseltown folly, yet she treats her characters, their concern with compelling surfaces and their perpetual quest to capture reality through artifice, with warmth and seriousness. In their shallowness, she finds a kind of profundity." Publishers Weekly (Starred Review) (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
"Each thorny character has an intriguing backstory, feelings run high, and Smiley is regally omnipotent as she advocates for art, objects to war, and considers tricky questions of power and spirit, love and compassion. Archly sexy and brilliant." Booklist
"Smiley has put herself on the edge....Ten Days in the Hills achieves a kindred richness." John Updike, the New Yorker
"The beauty of Smiley's garrulous new novel is that it sublimates polemics in a breezy narrative upon which she has liberally bestowed her trademark gifts." Elle
"Smiley forges a blazing farce, a fiery satire of contemporary celebrity culture and a rich, simmering meditation on the price of war and fame and desire." Los Angeles Times
"The reader segues from leering voyeurism to that milder state, companionship, thrilled with such a panorama of foibles, blunders, egos and insights." Miami Herald
"A rich meditation on love, war and Hollywood." Charlotte Observer
"Ms. Smiley is capable of delving into her characters' hearts and minds....[B]ut more often than not, the reader feels that Ms. Smiley is...laboriously illustrating observations about Hollywood that have been made many times before." Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times
"These characters are so listless that the reader loses hope. There will be no discoveries and no confrontations. Being trapped for hundreds of pages in which everybody talks but nothing happens, or will happen, can make a person cranky." Hartford Courant
"The parade of stories has no evident thematic unity, and the characters are frequently irritating....A couple of touching moments toward the end can't redeem this surprising misstep from one of our most gifted novelists." Kirkus Reviews
"[S]ly and sexy....[A] satirical frolic reminiscent of the Pulitzer Prize-winning author's Moo, though here with more emphasis on Eros than academe. Recommended." Library Journal
In the aftermath of the 2003 Academy Awards, Max and Elena- he's an Oscar-winning writer/director-open their Holywood Hills home to a group of friends and neighbors, industy insiders and hangers-on, eager to escape the outside world and dissect the latest news, gossip, and secrets of the business. Over the next ten days, old lovers collide, new relationships form, and sparks fly, all with Smiley's signature sparkling wit and characterization.
With its breathtaking passion and sexy irreverence, Ten Days in the Hills is a glowing addition to the work of one of our most beloved novelists.
About the Author
Jane Smiley is the author of eight previous works of fiction, including The Age of Grief, The Greenlanders, Ordinary Love & Good Will, A Thousand Acres (which won the Chicago Tribune Heartland Prize, the National Book Critics Circle Award, and the Pulitzer Prize), and Moo. She lives in northern California.
Reading Group Guide
1. The story opens just after the Iraq war has begun and Elena is thinking about the war, as she will throughout the novel. “Though no theory worked, she couldn't help toiling at her theorizing. …Each new theory was accompanied by a momentary sense of uplift—oh, that
was it—fear, native aggression, ignorance, disinformation and propaganda, a religious temperament of rules and punishments. But in the end, it was that they didn't mind killing; they didn't think killing had anything to do with them or their loved ones” [p. 22]. Why is Elena the character most affected by the outbreak of war? Are you sympathetic to her thinking? Is she the most morally engaged character in the novel, or is she, as Charlie thinks, over-reacting?
2. Consider the book's structure: 10 characters spend 10 days together in two different houses. What happens? What develops? What is resolved, if anything? What is the effect of Smiley's taking Boccaccio's fourteenth-century premise (10 characters take refuge from the plague for ten days of pleasure and storytelling) and transposing it to 2003? [See Smiley's description of The Decameron below]
3. A recurring comic allusion to what Elena calls “the manliness problem” is found at the beginning of the book with regard to Max, to Saddam Hussein, and to actors such as Hugh Grant and Ed Harris [p. 19]. Elena worries that, since “the Big Classic” is malfunctioning, she has unmanned Max with her fears about the war. What is “the manliness problem” and does it in fact relate to the war?
4. Consider the ways in which the three main couples—Max and Elena, Stoney and Isabel, Paul and Zoe—are sexually attuned to each other. What does Smiley seem to suggest about their relationships, given the ways they make love with each other? Does the sexual bond between Isabel and Stoney suggest that they should be together, despite the difference in their ages?
5. What does the juxtaposition of war with sex, food, storytelling and movie-watching signify?
6. Smiley describes the marriage of Zoe and Max as follows: “To Max (Elena was sure), Zoe felt like the main event of his life, but to Zoe (for some reason) Max felt like the opening act. Elena understood that this was a common pattern in Hollywood, where the calibrations of success, especially for 'talent,' were highly refined, and every marriage was simultaneously an assertion of who and how important you thought you were at a particular moment in your career and a sign of how you were to be treated by others” [p. 41]. Does the fact that Elena is not in the movie business mean that her love for Max (and his for her) is not bound to this hierarchy of social status?
7. Is Hollywood meant to be a microcosm of America, or is it seen to have a bizarre culture all its own? Why might Smiley have chosen to set her reprise of The Decameron in Hollywood? What is the relation between movies and storytelling, since both are so fundamental to the conversations and activities that we see throughout the novel?
8. In a discussion about a newspaper article on civilian deaths, Charlie stares aghast at Elena when she says, “The U.S. is a pariah in world opinion today” [p. 210]. Given the time that has elapsed since the beginning of the Iraq war and the publication of this novel, how do Elena's fears and opinions come across? What might the book be like if the same ten people got together now, nearly five years into the war?
9. John Updike, writing in The New Yorker, observed that the novel's “sexual descriptions set a new mark for explicitness in a work of non-pornographic intent. Smiley works in close focus, and from a male as well as a female point of view” (The New Yorker 1/29/07). Discuss what is unique or remarkable about Smiley's descriptions of sex. What is she expressing about the emotional and physiological effects of touch and physical response, and what is particularly impressive about the descriptive prose in which she does so?
10. Sexual infidelity finds its place in the story when Zoe sleeps with Simon [p. 245]. Why does Simon punch Paul? Why does Zoe react as she does, and why do these events lead to her breakup with Paul?
11. Why is Paul an interesting character? Is he a charlatan? Is he wise? What do you think of his spiritual perspective, particularly in juxtaposition to the other characters and with the background of Hollywood?
12. Elena is a writer of self-help books like Here's How: To Do EVERYTHING Correctly! She worries that she suffers from a form of obsessive-compulsive disorder and that because of her preoccupations she lacks a sense of humor. Does Elena come across as a likeable person? Why or why not?
13. On the seventh day the group moves to the Bel Air mansion of the Russian millionaire Mike. How does the change in setting affect the characters? Why might Smiley have chosen to move her characters to such a house?
14. Regarding Elena's love for Max, we're told, “what created this love was a suddenly vast sense of every story he had told her…" [p. 424]. Does this mean that Max has in a sense created himself, for Elena, out of stories? Or that she loves him for his past, his perceptions, and his sensibility? What does this statement tell us about the importance of the stories people tell each other?
15. In what ways is the novel funny? In what ways is it satirical? Consider the scene in which Cassie and Delphine plan to go food shopping and they survey the dietary needs and preferences of the group [p. 86]. Is the scene meant to stand, comically, in contrast to some other cultural or social reality?
16. Max's movie Grace won an Oscar in the 1970s but his career hasn't moved forward much since then. He does not seem troubled by this and doesn't want to take Stoney's advice about Taras Bulba. He would prefer to make My Lovemaking with Elena. Does it seem likely that either of these movies will see the light?
17. Consider what it would be like to make a list of the many movies mentioned or watched by the characters in the story, and to actually watch all of these films. How would it change your perspective on reality? On Hollywood? On the different ways that film and fiction tell stories?
18. The novel ends as Zoe receives the package containing the painting, which is not by Vermeer but instead by a woman artist named Judith Leyster, “the only woman artist of her day” [p. 449]. She is humming the song “So in Love,” and thinking about the girl in the painting. What is the effect of this ending?
On The Decameron, from Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Novel:
“Giovanni Boccaccio's The Decameron … takes place during the Black Death. … Here were the characters … making up their minds to go out into the countryside, to take a break from the devastation, and to entertain themselves with stories. … They do find repose and they do entertain themselves, and most important for readers, with their tales and their discussion, they reconstitute what it means to be human and civilized even while civilization is disintegrating around them. And they do it with good humor rather than grief. Many of the stories are jokes; many of them are intended to evoke laughter and pleasure. … I thought it was a reminder of human resilience—not merely that humans survive, but that as they survive, they can't help re-creating complex culture, which includes aesthetic, moral, political, sexual, and sensual ideas” [pp. 273-74].
“A blazing farce, a fiery satire of contemporary celebrity culture and a rich, simmering meditation on the price of war and fame and desire.” —Los Angeles Times Book Review
The introduction, discussion questions, and suggestions for further reading that follow are designed to enhance your group's reading and conversation about Jane Smiley's Ten Days in the Hills, an extraordinary reimagining of Boccaccio's Decameron set in the Hollywood hills in the early days of the Iraq war.