Jennifer Close has a reputation for having nailed the whole young-woman’s-coming-of-age thing in her first novel, Girls in White Dresses.

And that, with the image of a young woman on the cover messing with the belt of her dress, brought Curtis Sittenfeld’s Prep to my mind.

Doubleday - Random House, 2013

Doubleday – Random House, 2013

Yes, I admit it: I wanted to read this book because of the cover.

(Even though, without context, the slim-woman-in-brightly-coloured-dress motif isn’t one which normally draws me in to a read.)

The Smart One invites readers to get comfortable with the unfastening of four women’s lives, right from the opening pages.

It’s not exceptionally-messy-unravelling (as, say, in Anne Enright’s The Forgotten Waltz or Lynn Crosbie’s Life Is About Losing Everything).

It’s a steady build of discomfort, an accumulation of disappointments.

For two sisters in this novel, this evidence erupts as a sudden break, the sort that requires moving boxes and cancellations, new employment and reallocated resources and, perhaps most challenging, uncomfortable explanations to bystanders.

But the losses only appear sudden; their roots stretch into deeper disappointments. (But don’t panic: they are all recognizable, all explained.)

“If life was going to be unfair, it was going to go all the way.”

Claire observes that when she and Martha were younger, it was Martha who always won the contests to see which kid could withstand the heat of a fireball candy for the longest time.

There is a quiet but fervent competitive heat in the sisters’ relationship. Claire mentally hears the echo of her mother’s “Oh, Claire”, stretching back across the years. She hears it as disappointment. And, at times, Claire can’t stop herself from rolling her eyes at Martha’s achievements.

Martha does not bask in her “achievements” however. Indeed, she struggles to recognize them. She gave up her nursing career for a position in retail, and finds great comfort (and great frustration) in folding clothes for display tables. That is the kind of situation she believes she can manage, but it, too, is a disappointment.

Both Claire and Martha are struggling, and Jennifer Close’s third-person narration takes readers from one character to the next, brushing close enough to grasp understanding and empathy, but not alighting for long enough on any single character for the reader to become dependent on that relationship alone.

The bulk of the narrative is devoted to Claire and Martha, but Weezy (their mother) and Cleo (their brother’s girlfriend) receive consideration as well.

Weezy is the “smart one” of the title; her sister, Maureen, is the “pretty one”. Arguably, the sisters are created to inhabit these roles as well, but that certainly wouldn’t have been Weezy’s (Louise’s) outright intention.

Weezy was the sort of mother who made sure that her young daughters understood that ‘feminist’ was not a dirty word, but a reflection of her belief in equal rights. She was the sort of mother who insisted upon a woman’s right to work in and out of the home, even if Weezy herself did not “choose” to exercise that right, instead “chose” to focus on her children and her home.

Weezy is the sort of mother who, even still, worries a great deal about her daughters, about whether she has instilled qualities in them that have made it harder for them to be happy.

Random House, 2005

Curious about the belt image on Prep? Lee was a frustratingly well-drawn character, the novel painful and taut and detail-soaked
Random House, 2005

(To be fair, she worries about Max, her son, Cleo’s boyfriend, too, but she worries just as much about Cleo, whose mother was the “smart one” too.)

“Even though Weezy had just suggested the same thing, she immediately wanted to [say]…that marriage was a mistake. […] They were children. How did they think they could make a marriage work? But she kept her mouth shut.”

With a shifting perspective, Jennifer Close pulls the readers into each character’s story long enough to create a general sense of complexity.

As simple as that woman’s situation might appear on the surface, emotionally, chances are that she is simply tightening her belt because she knows that she is being observed.

Perhaps Claire and Martha have not fully embraced the capacity to “act”.

Weezy certainly seems to be stalwart and wise, determinedly organized in the face of disorder. But when readers brush closer to her consciousness, they realize that Weezy, too, is merely pretending, as much to convince herself as anybody else.

Being the “smart one” is only about the perception of others, readers learn. The lesson is not subtly sketched; even though Weezy is clearly biting her tongue in the snippet quoted above, readers do not have to wonder about what she is thinking,.

There are some similiarites to Meg Mitchell Moore’s The Arrivals (but not-so-much literary) or Elizabeth Crane’s We Only Know So Much (but not-so-much sassy) in terms of subject matter and settings.

But the mother in The Arrivals who, like Weezy, takes in her grown children when their lives unravel, is left unsketched in ways that ultimately involve the reader in a different way.

“Ginny’s eyes were closed. Her words came out in a fragmented way; it was as if she were speaking through a net. She wore a sleeveless nightgown of a color that had once been a vibrant blue but had long ago faded to muted gray.”

In Meg Mitchell Moore’s novel, the wear and tear is expressed in dialogue that is not transcribed on the page, but left for the reader to imagine. (I find myself wishing that the fictional Ginny could have coffee with Weezy, the “smart one”.)

Ultimately, the kind of detail in Jennifer Close’s The Smart One (about holiday menus, hangovers, workplaces and decor) is not far off the minutiae of boarding school life drawn in Curtis Sittenfeld’s Prep (so perhaps the similarities that I saw in these girly-shaded cover images were not entirely imagined).

But Claire, Martha, Weezy and Cleo reflect in a more straightforward way. (Unlike Sittenfeld’s heroine, Lee, who circles and stops-and-starts and wallows, oh, yes, wallows. Waaaallllllows.)  Their struggles fit into sentences, and there is little room in which the reader can wonder or reflect.

Jennifer Close’s style is comfortable, her characters credible and recognizable, and the chaos they experience is corralled in her prose in a way which offers a certain kind of satisfaction.

But just how satisfying readers find The Smart One depends as much on how its readers define that satisfaction as on Jennifer Close’s style of storytelling.

(For myself, I prefer a little more mess, a corner of the narrative that I can burrow into. But that’s just me.)

Have you read Jennifer Close’s work, or have you something of hers on your TBR?