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Book Review: Good Faith, by Jane Smiley

Greed and betrayal in the real estate boom of the 1980s.


Good Faith

Knopf, 2003, 432 pages



Jane Smiley brings her extraordinary gifts, comic timing, empathy, emotional wisdom, an ability to deliver slyly on big themes and capture the American spirit, to the seductive, wishful, wistful world of real estate, in which the sport of choice is the mind game. Her funny and moving new novel is about what happens when the American Dream morphs into a seven-figure American Fantasy.

Joe Stratford is someone you like at once. He makes an honest living helping nice people buy and sell nice houses. His not-very-amicable divorce is finally settled, and he's ready to begin again. It's 1982. He is pretty happy, pretty satisfied. But a different era has dawned; Joe's new friend, Marcus Burns from New York, seems to be suggesting that the old rules are ready to be repealed, that now is the time you can get rich quick. Really rich. And Marcus not only knows that everyone is going to get rich, he knows how. Because Marcus just quit a job with the IRS.

But is Joe ready for the kind of success Marcus promises he can deliver? And what's the real scoop on Salt Key Farm? Is this really the development opportunity of a lifetime?

And then there's Felicity Ornquist, the lovely, feisty, winning (and married) daughter of Joe's mentor and business partner. She has finally owned up to her feelings for Joe: she's just been waiting for him to be available.

The question Joe asks himself, over and over, is: Does he have the gumption? Does he have the smarts and the imagination and the staying power to pay attention, to Marcus and to Felicity, and reap the rewards?




Jane Smiley is a Pulitzer-prize winning novelist. I enjoyed her non-fiction book, Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Novel, but this is the first novel I have read by her.

The Eighties has been called the "decade of greed," though people really weren't any greedier then than they are now, and the real estate shenanigans in this book will be familiar to anyone who's paid attention to the housing bubble of the 2000s. Smiley captures the feel of that earlier decade while combining social drama with subtle commentary about greed, middle-class aspirations, and the American Dream. The references are all accurate, but the novel is remarkably undated; aside from the central role of Savings & Loans in the story and the lack of cell phones, which every realtor now has glued to their ear, it could easily be read as taking place today.

Unfortunately, I found it about as interesting as any reminiscence of the 80s. Joe Stratford is a New Jersey realtor who's pretty content with his job, doing well, and getting plenty of action from his married girlfriend, Felicity. (Joe's sex scenes come approximately every other chapter.) Livin' the dream, man. Then Marcus Burns, a schmoozy Cadillac-driving former IRS agent from the big city who knows all about tricks and loopholes and new ways of doing business, shows up and gives Joe and everyone else a little taste of Big Money.

So, the looming S&L crisis and the intersection of real estate, sex, family, and business, all revolving around our buddy Joe.

Good Faith is a well-crafted book, but it failed to engage me on any level. The real estate plot wasn't one that interested me, and whether or not Felicity would leave her husband for Joe wasn't something I really cared about. Marcus is obviously (to the reader) a worm from the beginning, so there isn't much suspense about whether he's going to stab his new friends in the back, just when and how.

The only really compelling part of the book for me was the end. After the big betrayal, Joe spends a great deal of time asking "Why?" over and over again, trying to make sense of it. This was something I could understand and empathize with; when someone you liked and trusted knifes you in the back like that, you can't help dwelling on it, wondering how long they'd been planning it, whether everything they'd said from the beginning was false, what they would say if you were able to force them to explain themselves, etc. Joe spends a bit of time obsessing over this in a very human fashion.

I wanted to like this book, but although Jane Smiley does indeed have extraordinary gifts as a writer, Good Faith was completely lacking in drama or suspense. Empathy and "emotional wisdom," yes, and if I were inclined to do so, I could dig out plenty of metaphors from the text as well. Few writers write such believable and human characters. I just didn't care about them.

I am hoping Smiley's Pulitzer prize-winner, A Thousand Acres, will be more to my liking.



Verdict: Great writers don't always write great books. There is nothing about Good Faith I can call "bad," and evaluated purely for its craftsmanship, it's a fine novel. It just bored me. I'm sure it's someone's favorite, but I have a hard time imagining anyone falling in love with this book, frankly. Maybe someone who's really fascinated by social hijinks framed within 1980s real estate deals.

Also by Jane Smiley: My review of Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Novel.




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Tags: books, jane smiley, literary, reviews
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