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Customer Review

19 of 20 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars affluent housewife destroys her own life in raw, exceptional second novel, November 18, 2008
This review is from: I Smile Back (Paperback)
It doesn't take long for readers to understand that Laney Brooks, an alienated and affluent suburban housewife, suffers from a disastrous self-image. Promiscuous, alcoholic and drug-addicted, Laney careens on a self-destructive course in Amy Koppelman's exceptional second novel, "I Smile Back." Koppelman does not shy away from depicting the latent despair and existential loneliness her protagonist embraces; in brutally frank and often graphic descriptive passages, the author suggests that Laney is an unspoken, if often disregarded, archetype for a significant number of disaffected American women. "I Smile Back" is an unusual "novel in acts," and the intermission, during which readers may catch their breath from the awful wreckage of Laney's life, provides illumination as to why Laney suffers so.

In what appears to be a cryptic anecdotal recounting of a significant childhood event, Laney despondently admits the internalization of her father's reaction to a relatively innocuous incident regarding the bullying of her brother. His advice -- to act as if the hurtful incident did not even occur, transforms itself in Laney's mind. In advising her to swallow anger, her father indirectly encourages Laney's tendencies towards self-abasement. After her father divorces her mother and leaves the family, Laney perceives herself as "something not worth fighting for." Perniciously, this sense of worthlessness intertwines itself with an anguished feeling of abandonment, and Laney, as a mother, feels doomed that she will repeat the same process with her own children.

Koppelman is relentless in her discussion of the emotional consequences of childhood trauma. Are we in effect programmed to repeat the mistakes of our childhood in our adult experiences? To what extent do children, and the adults they become, have genuine choices in remaking their pasts? Is our tendency towards self-destruction greater than our capacity to nurture? It is with abject horror that Laney discovers her young son's propensities towards personality disorganization. Will his "mechanism of choice," a muffling of anger and compensation with forgiveness, cause him to "forget that he ever cried himself to sleep" while his mother spent nearly a month hospitalized in a half-way house after a suicidal episode.

Koppelman is at her very best when she compels her readers to look at life through Laney's eyes. A devoted husband becomes an insufferable bore; her doting children become tasks to be worked through, jobs to be completed. As Laney depersonalizes others, she does the same to herself. What could be a vibrant, enticing personality emerges as a husk. However, the novel does have some minor problems. There are far too many staccato-like paragraphs, too many sudden changes of voice. Even the final paragraph contains commentary as if written by a stage director.

Yet these flaws are few compared to the enormous emotional power of "I Smile Back." Amy Koppelman's sophomore novel compares favorably to her first. Both are unflinching commentaries on the vacuity of modern American life, and each features women who are lost and may never find their way back. It is a rare writer who tackles the complex and agonizing topic of trans-generational transmission of trauma. Koppelman has the talent to make the bleak seem relevant; her dark worldview ironically may inspire resolve rather than resignation.
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Location: Lake Bluff, IL

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