The Smart One

By Jennifer Close

(Knopf, $24.95, 352 pages)

Who is this author?

Jennifer Close had a bestseller with her debut novel, “Girls in White Dresses.” She is a Midwesterner from Chicago with degrees from Boston College and the New School in New York City. After a career in New York writing for magazines, she now teaches creative writing at George Washington University in Washington, D.C.

What is this book about?

It’s every older parent’s nightmare: their adult (well, chronologically, not necessarily emotionally) children move back into the family home, bringing their sibling rivalries, sloppy housekeeping, broken hearts and  burgeoning crises along with their dirty laundry, smartphones and yoga pants. Where’s the empty nest when you really need one?

That’s what happens to the Coffey family of suburban Philadelphia, when Claire (newly un-engaged and in deep debt), Martha (a failed nurse, now a J. Crew manager with a serious case of social awkwardness) and (Max college-age golden boy with his gorgeous but accidentally pregnant girlfriend, Cleo) descend on mid-50s Weezy and Will, whose marriage has grown a little frayed, as long-term relationships so often do.  Weezy has been entertaining herself by secretly continuing to plan Claire’s never-gonna-happen wedding. Cleo is a stunning young woman, but full of self-doubt planted by her very un-nurturing mother. It’s your typical pretty on the surface, turmoil underneath family situation.

Weezy’s a worrier, full of dread about what-if situations, and Will is pretty much detached from the family angst, but the return of their natives force them all to re-assess themselves and the way they relate to one another. The two 30-ish sisters and Max must find a way past their old antagonisms and begin their delayed process of growing up before they grow old. Their parents’ task is to get out of the way and let it happen. Over the course of a year, we find out whom, and in which ways, the smart ones are.

Why you’ll like it:

The premise of this book may not be new, but Close’s clever writing makes it fresh. There’s plenty of humor in this book, but it avoids authorial snark-ery while still making clear how unaware the Coffey siblings are about life. Close is particularly good at conveying those muttered moments when parent or child say (often to themselves, and just as well) what they really think about one another. All the characters have piquancy, but worrywart Weezy and muddled Martha, who seems to have inherited her mother’s obsession with what can go wrong and endlessly lectures others about their behavior, really stand out. Serious enough to be provocative but funny enough to make the seriousness go down smoothly, this was my favorite beach book of this summer.

Here’s what Close wrote about the moving back home phenomenon for The Blog on the Huffington Post website:

“Even with the complaints about living with parents, all the people I talked to were genuinely grateful that they were able to move back home. I don’t think it’s anyone’s first choice, but it helped a lot of people out. And I have to say, it is nice to know that there’s always a place you can go if things go bad. I should note that while discussing this, my husband said he’d rather live in a box than move back home. But if my husband and I found ourselves in a really bad spot, it’s comforting to think that we could move in with my parents or his parents and they wouldn’t turn us away–at least I don’t think they would. We’ve never actually asked them about it, and I hope we don’t need to. But I should mention here that they my parents and my in-laws are four of the finest and most generous people I’ve ever known. (What? I’m just keeping options open.)”

What others are saying:

Booklist says: “After watching her engagement fall apart, her job performance tank, and her credit-card balance rise into the stratosphere, Claire Coffey decides it’s time to move back home. An old romantic flame even resurfaces, though Claire believes that being home for any meaningful length of time forces a regression to teenage behavior. While Claire, older sister Martha, younger brother Max, and the rest of the Coffey family try to navigate the logistics of having adult children return to the previously empty nest, they realize that no right answers can be found in any parenting manual. “The Smart One” focuses on the intersections of self-discovery, independence, and reliance in the modern family, all enlivened by Close’s signature wit and warmth. Close does an admirable job of equally voicing the Coffey children, straining to reevaluate their priorities under a shared roof, and the Coffey parents, aching to provide guidance without wanting to seem heavy-handed. A touchingly tender, emotionally honest novel about shifting priorities and the nontraditional career paths so many find themselves on … “

“The Smart One” has such authentic, multifaceted characters. . . . Close does a great job of creating these protagonists. They had depth, they were distinct from each other, and their motivations were believable. . . . [Close] is a strong writer, and other people will connect with the well-drawn protagonists of this novel,” says Book Riot.

“If you’re looking for the literary equivalent of HBO’s “Girls”, then check out Jennifer Close’s debut novel, “Girls in White Dresses,” which charts the travails of flailing twenty-somethings. Her follow-up, “The Smart One,” feels the way “Girls” could circa season 6, when ‘almost getting it kind of together’ ceases to be cute. . . . This bighearted novel examines a generation of nonstarters with a mix of empathy and Close’s signature deadpan, pathos-driven humor,” Entertainment Weekly

Kirkus Reviews says: “Close, whose first novel (Girls in White Dresses, 2011) romped with recent college grads newly on their own, focuses here on two sisters on the cusp of 30, both torn between independent womanhood and lingering dependence on parents. . . . Martha, who has always been needy and socially off-kilter, steals the novel . . . The friction between the sisters is palpable and real. . . . The novel sings in the small moments when its women express uncomfortable truths, undercurrents of sibling resentment and parental disappointment, which usually remain unspoken. . . . Perfect for the beach or a long plane trip.”

When is it available?

You’d be a smart one to pick this one up at the Downtown Hartford Public Library or its Mark Twain branch.

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