REVIEW: A ‘Smart One’ to read this summer

Family center of second novel by Jennifer Close
May. 18, 2013 @ 03:47 PM

“The Smart One” by Jennifer Close
(Alfred A. Knopf, $24.95, hardcover)

As novels go, criteria for reading during the summer seems to be a seaside story setting because of the assumption we’ll all vacation at the beach at some point. What is for sure, though, is that a more consistent staple of summer down time includes our families.
In “The Smart One,” Jennifer Close writes about a family and all its flaws, from the minutely annoying to the lovingly overbearing. It’s a story about home, and characters who come home, but not that oft-told tale of how coming home reunites everyone for the better and ends with everything grand.
We step into the Coffey family’s life and step out again, knowing they’ll continue on, and maybe some will again live in the same house and others will move away. A big move into or out of the house is part of their lifelong story arc, and readers just happen to meet the Coffeys when all three adult children converge with their parents for a lengthy year together. Claire is down after a broken engagement and blows all her money, so she quits her job and moves back to the Philly suburbs. Martha has never left, spending her entire 20s being overly cautious and expecting, and receiving, accolades for even thinking about going back to her failed attempt at nursing. Mother Weezy is her enabler, but is also judgmental, if lovingly so, of her children and everyone else. Max gets his college girlfriend pregnant, the beautiful Cleo who is unaware of her appearance but very aware of her lack of close friends or family.
So, who is “The Smart One” in the title? Well, it all depends on your, and their, perspective. Readers see life alternatingly as Claire, Cleo, Martha and Weezy. What we see – and what they see of themselves – is quite different than how each views the other. Yet all sides are true.
Even as they bicker and judge, they are still there for each other as family. Martha is self-centered but still wants to share the bathroom mirror with her sister. Claire is annoyed at Martha’s neediness, but still feels bad when she calls her out.
Close excels at the details of personality and daily life. Like novelist J. Courtney Sullivan, another relatively new author with her first few books out, the characters and experiences are drawn so realistically they stay with us long after we close the book. We feel the way siblings and parents can irritate each other to frayed ends. We’re right there with Cleo and college roommate drama, relating to the chore wheel and the fleeting opportunities to build lasting friendships. We know people like the Coffeys.
Close’s first novel, “Girls in White Dresses,” was a best-seller. This one, another “Smart One,” as it were, is also worth attention. Read it on vacation as a literary reprieve from your own family, replaced with the nuances of another. Be glad your family’s not so crazy. Wish your family was so crazy. And there for you. Or not. Family is complicated. “The Smart One” reminds you you’re not alone.