Executive Times






2007 Book Reviews


Ten Days in the Hills by Jane Smiley








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An ensemble of characters takes to the hills, literally, in Jane Smiley’s new novel, Ten Days in the Hills. As the war in Iraq begins in March 2003, a group assembles at a house in Hollywood the night after the Academy Awards. Self-absorbed and pontificating, the characters were a bit grating and irritating at first, but the persistent reader will come to know them well and even like them by the end of the novel. After a few days at that house, the group moves on to an even more palatial place in the hills. Each character tells their story over these ten days, and their relationships change during the time they are together. Here’s an excerpt, from the end of Day Two, pp. 86-89:


The sunlight had now spread everywhere around the pool and spilled down the hill into the Japanese garden. Conversation subsided, and every­one stretched out and did something in the sunshine. Sure enough, Simon reached into the pocket of his shirt and came out with a cigarette, which he quietly lit. Here’s why I need a wife, Stoney thought: with a wife you could say, “This is what I think,” and then, after a while, after something had hap­pened, she would say, “It was just the way you said it was going to be.” And then all of your passing good ideas didn’t simply vanish into thin air. For a while his former wife, Nina, had been good at reinforcing this feeling of having a life and building toward something—not a fortune, exactly, or a family, or a legacy, or the things that Jerry and Dorothy cared about, but something more like the idea that one thought was adding to another and eventually there would be a state of understanding. He looked at the scripts on the table. There would also be a reason to not just let his career slide into the maw of his natural temperament.

After a few minutes of quiet, Cassie said, “Well, I need to get to the gallery, and I wondered what about dinner, because Delphine and I can go get something. Let’s see.” She reached for her handbag and took out a small pad. “Okay, how many regular vegetarians?”

Zoe’s hand went up, then Paul shrugged and put his hand up.


Only Isabel.

“Anyone lactose-intolerant?”

Delphine nodded.


Max’s hand went up. Cassie said, “What about Charlie?” and Stoney realized he wasn’t present. Max said, “If he isn’t, he should be.”

“Okay. Let’s see. How about hot-pepper-intolerant?”

No hands went up.

She said, “Do you care, Elena?”

“No okra.”

Cassie wrote that down, then said, “I don’t like lamb. Hmm.” She showed the list to Delphine. “Simon likes everything?”

Simon nodded.

“I know Stoney likes everything.”

Stoney nodded.

Cassie and Deiphine stared at the list for a moment. Then Deiphine said, “I think baked tofu in a spicy orange sauce with pea pods and pea ten­drils, Szechuan green beans, some with shrimp and some without, and some baby greens with champagne vinaigrette—”

“How about Black Japonica fried rice?” said Elena. “It comes out the most beautiful rich purple color. I can sliver up some bamboo shoots and baby carrots and chanterelle mushrooms to go in it.”

“Tell us what to buy,” said Cassie.

“Get a New York Times,” said Max. And everyone who had been smiling sobered up. Stoney saw Isabel survey everyone with a belligerent air, then get up and go into the house. Moments later, she called from the doorway, “I’m going now! Here’s Charlie!” And then Max’s friend walked out onto the deck. He said, “Hey! Wake up, you sluggards! Some of us have been running on the beach!”

“Where’d you go?” said Elena.

“Well, Santa Monica, where else? Look at this!” He held up a small cap-stile. “It’s a grain of rice with a yin/yang symbol etched on it. Isn’t that great? I love it.” It was strung on a thin chain, which he hung around his neck. He sat down on a chaise and stretched out his legs. He said, “And here’s some papers. I got The Wall Street Journal if anyone wants that, and a USA Today.”

There was something about Charlie’s enthusiasm that was mildly dis­turbing, but still no one stood up. The sunshine was so pleasantly comfort­ing that Stoney nearly fell asleep. Then, at some point when he was thinking something about cars on the 405, he heard Paul’s voice say, “So, Max, how did you get to Hollywood?”

At this point there was a creak, the creak of Max’s chair as he shifted posi­tion, and Stoney opened his eyes. He was slightly surprised to find that he was still here. He sat up. Max said, “Oh Lord. Well, I have to blame Bette Davis.”

“How did you know Bette Davis?” said Charlie.

“I did not know Bette Davis. Remember Laurie Lehman, though?”

“Oh, yeah,” said Charlie.

Max turned toward Paul. “I had a girlfriend in high school named Laurie Lehman. She was very smart and went off to Radcliffe, at which point she broke up with me. Well, her mother wasn’t old, less than forty at that point, and she and Laurie’s old man were divorced. He was a dentist. So Mrs. Lehman modeled herself on Bette Davis. Women did that in her genera­tion. A girl had a type—the Barbara Stanwyck type or the Ingrid Bergman type. Anyway, after Laurie went off to college, Mrs. Lehman started inviting me over. She would carry a drink in one hand and a cigarette in a holder in the other and stalk around the house trying to cook dinner and saying all sorts of Bette Davis lines, like ‘Fasten your seat belts, it’s going to be a bumpy night.’ She had a way of opening her eyes very wide and enunciating her words, and she always cultivated the idea that she was hard to handle. Belle Davis wasn’t a tremendously big star anymore at that point, so I hadn’t seen any of her movies until one night when I stayed up to watch Dark Vic­tory on T\7, and I was amazed. It was exactly like watching Mrs. Lehman walk across the kitchen.”

“Did you sleep with her?” said Cassie.

“I did,” said Max. “For about two weeks, then I went off to college myself, and then I got drafted. She wrote me when I was in the army, and her letters were always newsy and happy, full of funny gossip, and not at all concerned about what might happen to me. She acted as if nothing bad could possibly happen to me, and my sojourn in Vietnam was just a little break in the gen­eral life of good times that I had been and would be leading, so I liked get­ting them. Letters from my parents were much more anxious and full of advice. She was talented. She always put in little drawings of people we knew that she had seen at the grocery store or the hairdresser’s. One time she drew a whole line of women sitting under hair dryers, and I could rec­ognize every one of them. By the end of my tour, I felt like she was about my best friend, so, when I got back Stateside, I went to her house for a few days before 1 went home to my folks.

“Laurie was married and living in England by that time, and her morn’s place was a mess. As soon as I got there, I realized that she was drinking very heavily and that she and her house and her alcoholism were way more than I could handle, so I only stayed two days. In those two days, though, she pulled some string, some very, very old string she had from her days in New York, and who should show up the second night but Lee Strasberg. And he must have known her pretty well, because he came for dinner and he brought the food with him—Chinese food. So he sat down and ate dinner with us in the middle of the mess, and he didn’t talk to me much. He just was nice to Mrs. Lehman, and she was Bette Davis all night long. I have to give it to him, because he never even gave me a complicit glance. Her role was that she was Bette Davis, and his role was that he was happy to be there and interested in her, and my role was more or less to clear the table and wash some dishes so we could eat, and pick up magazines so we could sit down. The next day, I made her realize that I had to go home to my parents’ house, which was about twenty-five miles away, and I managed to escape, but then, a couple of days after that, she called me and said that Strasberg thought I had potential and would I come to New York and talk to him, and my parents thought I might as well do that while I was getting ready to go to chiropractor’s school, which was going to be my real vocation. So I did, and he let me in, and I met ma the first day, and ma was a Natalie Wood type.”

“Yes, she was,” said Charlie. “She was Natalie Wood all over.”

“And ma couldn’t sit still till she got us to Hollywood, and I just came along with her. We rented a place not far from here, where you get off the 405 onto Sunset, but then you make two lefts and you end up in a dead-end street right up against the highway. Anyway, she was acting, and I was acting and writing, and here we were.” He shrugged and looked at Stoney. He said, “It wasn’t until I fell in with Dorothy and Bo and Jerry that I really got to Hollywood Hollywood.”

“You were a very nice boy,” said Cassie.

Max smiled at her, and somehow that was what made Stoney actually want to go to the office. What was really his secret treasure, though, was that he would be back for dinner, tofu and all. And then Isabel walked by as if by mere coincidence, and her hand brushed his lips, and he kissed it on the palm, and no one noticed.


Readers may need a filmgoers guide to keep up with all the movie references throughout Ten Days in the Hills, since as one would expect, these characters in Hollywood see the world through a movie lens. This novel is a treat for the fine writing, the interesting characters, and the humor with which Smiley conveys their shallowness.


Steve Hopkins, June 25, 2007



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 in the July 2007 issue of Executive Times


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