Ten Days in the Hills by Pulitzer Prize winner Jane Smiley is an enjoyable and flowing novel of conversations and relationships. This languorously paced novel has very little action, so if it’s action you’re looking for, keep looking. Ultimately this is a novel of storytelling and conversations following the example of The Decameron, a fourteenth-century novel by Giovanni Boccaccio.
The Decameron (according to Smiley’s own book about the novel as form, 13 Ways of Looking at the Novel) is a “cycle of a hundred stories supposedly told by a group of ten young people over the course of ten days in a luxurious retreat from the horrors of Florence in 1348.” Smiley calls the Decameron one of the “great prose masterpieces of all time,” and she describes its new approach as a turning point in the history of the novel in which Boccaccio knew he was innovating the form as he interrupts the narrative to defend his story, writes in the vernacular, and writes to appeal to women. The main similarity between The Decameron and Ten Days is the stylistic basis of storytelling as the plot. In The Decameron (I have not read the original, only Smiley’s summary), the characters take turns telling stories. In Ten Days, the characters converse, interact, and tell stories – you guessed it - for ten days, in two settings, both luxurious and both in the Hollywood Hills.
Ten Days begins at the home of Max, a faded Hollywood director, and involves a loose family group that assembles coincidentally at his house. As the scene opens (appropriate as this is a novel you can really envision as a movie) in spring 2003, shortly after the start of the Iraq war, Max and his current love are waking after a night at the Oscars. Max has attended before, but it is Elena’s first time and she enjoyed it. Several of the novel’s themes are introduced immediately: sex between and among the characters, Elena’s obsession with the Iraq war, and movies (ideas for them, references to old ones), and most of all the dialogue that is a surprising highlight of the book. All of these are just different ways of telling “stories.”
As Max and Elena slowly awaken, they realize to their surprise that their houseguests have already begun to gather at Max’s comfortable house in the Pacific Palisades: Stoney (Mike’s friend, agent, and later revealed as the older boyfriend of his daughter, Isabel); Charlie (50-year-old friend of Max); Delphine (Max’s ex mother-in-law, living in Max’s guesthouse); Cassie (Delphine’s friend); Isabel (Max’s daughter); Simon (Elena’s son); and, arriving later, Zoe (Max’s ex and Isabel’s mother) and Paul (her current yogi-type boyfriend), diverted from their planned trip to a monastery. This intergenerational mix makes for humorous exchanges about movies and food and the ins and outs of close living together, as in this excerpt about familiarity breeding contempt:
Elena glanced at Max. He looked amused and benevolent. She glanced at Isabel. She looked amused and irritated, the way Elena herself could remember feeling so well, that overwhelming weariness that came from being too familiar with your parents, more familiar than anyone should be with any other person.
The discussions carry the “action” of the novel, beginning with Max and Elena’s discussion about making a movie about lovemaking – 90 minutes of their own lovemaking, similar to My Dinner with Andre, a film of a conversation. (Incidentally, the numerous movie references make this novel a film-lovers’ book.) Later in the novel, talk of filmmaking turns into discussions with Stoney and the Russian producers he has talked with about Max restarting his career by remaking Taras Bulba, a short story by Gogol adapted as a 1962 movie. (In an amazing coincidence, the new Taras Bulba, the movie, was released April 1, 2009 to much fanfare in Russia.)
The extended family eat, talk, and watch movies, and basically work out the communal living arrangements at Max’s house for seven days until they are invited and move to a very luxurious mansion owned by Mike, the Russian producer. Each character relates a story about how they got to Hollywood, and, as one character notes about the importance of stories, “think of all the things that happen and all the things that people think about and learn, and they get kept as secrets, and then they disappear…. If every event disappeared without a trace...at the very least, there is something important that you wouldn’t know about yourself and [your family.]”
Smiley’s novel is divided into days and couples. She opens Day Two with Stoney and Isabel and a look into their burgeoning relationship. It turns out that Stoney and Isabel have been seeing each other since she was 16 (now 23) and he was 31 (now 38) and that this was a relationship Stoney knew that Max would not approve of. Isabel had been away at college in New York and is back for an extended stay. Their relationship expands, and they realize that they have real feelings for each other. On the other hand, the relationship of Isabel’s mother and her current boyfriend (Day Three) goes downhill, but in a mature way.
The best bits of the book are the conversations, the back and forth between the characters, whether it is two (or three) people in intense talk after lovemaking or the whole group, which makes for a refreshing change to an action plot. One of my favorite themes is Elena’s focus on the Iraq war (that Smiley and the characters know is always right outside their good life) and her realizations about her focus on it. She is very articulate in explaining how the war and ideas about war in general are “entirely counterintuitive.” It was “going forward no matter what, no matter how threatening and dangerous it was, no matter how many people were certain to die, no matter how many people protested and complained, no matter what a bad bet it looked like.” Her arguments about the war with Charlie are informative and educational in the ways of argument. There is even argument about the benefits of argument.
On Day Six, another big argument ensues. Charlie, Elena’s counter, finally says his piece about the Iraq War, the 2000 election, and the line of reasoning that the war is “a gamble, but if, or when, it pays off, the payoff is enormous.” Delphine eventually holds sway: “the question is why argue about it?... What is the source of this drive to talk about it, to think about it, to make up our minds?”
Much of the serious discussions go this way and that, provoking the reader’s thought process and providing sophisticated and intelligent repartee. What is life about but these stories and slow movements of life: talking, eating, and telling stories? The characters have various epiphanies, whether in conversation or alone, but ultimately meaning, conversation, and eating go on “in spite of the plagues and the fires and the massacres and the genocides and the clashes of armies and civilizations.”
Ten Days is thoroughly enjoyable for many reasons: its subjects (all the intelligent talk ranging from film to Russian short stories, and current events), Smiley’s story-upon-story form, its humor, and finally as a meditation on the meaning of life’s stories.