The Smart One

  • Jennifer Close
  • Knopf
  • 352 pp.

Three siblings find themselves drifting home in the author’s latest novel.

In her new novel, The Smart One, Jennifer Close offers a picture of the Millennial generation that is both more nuanced and more entertaining than the hand-wringing accounts found in Time and other magazines — and probably more accurate. The siblings Close follows would be considered at least on the edges of the Millennial generation — sisters Claire and Martha are 29 and 30 respectively, and their brother Max and his girlfriend Cleo are graduating from college.  While the so-called “epidemic” of adult children moving back in with their parents is certainly addressed — and, in fact, makes up most of the book’s plot — Close never reduces her characters to clichés, nor does she characterize them as representative of anyone but themselves. The characters are treated sympathetically as they struggle with various obstacles, and — although most of them end up moving home — Close doesn’t present the development as a defining defeat for them (although they may, at different times, feel that way themselves.)

The economy is not to blame for the woes of the Coffey children and their significant others. Nothing about their predicaments is specific to their generation; instead, they are faced with the kind of depression, anxiety, failed relationships and unhappy surprises that could happen to almost anyone. As the clan’s mother, Weezy, welcomes them back to their childhood home in suburban Philadelphia, she often thinks back to how her widowed mother left town as soon as she and her younger sister had finished high school: “[She had] just left her two daughters without a home base and gone back to Michigan to live her own life. She’d just assumed that they’d be okay, that they’d be able to manage. And they had. Was that what she should have done with her own children?” Neither Weezy nor the reader sees this as a good option.

The reader meets the two older sisters after their troubles have already begun. Martha has found that, after sailing through a nursing program with few academic challenges and no real friends, actually working the night shift at a large hospital is not what she expected. She is self-absorbed and obtuse — a real “Why are you kicking me under the table?” type — and seems almost offended that the real world is not more welcoming. She withdraws: exchanging her tidy, punctual tendencies for skipping work and lying around in an apartment filled with unwashed dishes. Then she quits her job and moves home.

A few years later, Claire — a sociable girl, grateful to have grown into her looks after high school — faces a seeming dead end after breaking off her engagement. She feels paralyzed and avoids friends and family — confiding in no one as she hides in her now unaffordable apartment and watches her savings drain away. As one particularly unhelpful friend observes to her, “In some ways, it’s worse than a divorce … I guess it’s because it ended before it even started, so it’s like someone dying young.” She eventually admits her troubles to Weezy in as terse and unemotional a manner as possible, and moves home.

While the children are able to begin rebuilding their lives after moving home, there’s more to this story than “how the Millennials got their groove back.” Close allows the characters to speak for themselves in alternating chapters, letting us see their internal monologues without narrative editorializing. In one chapter, the reader can sympathize with Weezy’s efforts to be encouraging and make the best of things. In the next, one sees the stark difference between Weezy’s intentions and reality: while she bustles around making a special dinner for her fragile oldest daughter, younger siblings Claire and Max watch in sullen solidarity, amusing themselves by counting the number of times Weezy absently exclaims “Mexican feast!” out loud.

The undercurrent of the story is the question of whether parents have anything to do with how their children turn out. The title, The Smart One, comes from Weezy’s parents’ prediction —which turned out to be wrong — that she was “the smart one” but her sister would marry well.  Weezy wonders if she married a good, steady man simply to spite her parents. On the other hand, the book is filled with memories of the three siblings from their childhood, and it seems their personalities were set in stone from the beginning: Martha worrying about getting her new sneakers dirty, Claire defiantly daring her mother to carry out disciplinary threats, and happy baby Max, content to sit quietly in his seat all day, without crying or bothering anyone.

The characters are vividly drawn, and the reader will cringe with recognition at most of their foibles. Although it seems that more than the average amount of trouble befalls the Coffey family, their situation does not feel unrealistic. Close creates a family dynamic that is universal in a story that could easily seem superficial in lesser hands.  Her novel will not only make the reader sympathize more with much-maligned Millennials, but with anyone confronting an unexpected future.

Virginia Pasley is a journalist currently working as the Associate Director of Communications at the National Association for Federal Credit Unions in Arlington, Va.


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