The Smash-up by Ali Benjamin: A review

 

Ali Benjamin has taken her inspiration from Edith Wharton's Ethan Frome, even borrowing the name of its title character. Her Ethan and his wife Zenobia ("Zo") and their 11-year-old daughter Alex have moved from New York to the village of Starkfield, Massachusetts, a fictional town in the Berkshires, in search of a quieter, less complicated life. Starkfield is described as possessing "a nondescript village green, around which are scattered a handful of small businesses, no more than one of every variety." It sounds idyllic, but it doesn't quite work out that way.

Ethan is the semiretired co-founder of a media start-up. His former partner is being accused by a former employee of sexual harassment and exploitation and he is pressuring Ethan to support him. Zenobia is a struggling filmmaker who gets deeply involved with a local activist group called All Them Witches. It is September 2018 and the Senate confirmation hearings of Brett Kavanaugh are in progress. The "Witches'" outrage is palpable. Meanwhile, Alex is completely obsessed with "Wicked" and she is seriously impulse-challenged. She attends Rainbow Seed School and the parents of some of her classmates are not happy about that and are trying to push her out. The family lives in a half-restored (they've run out of money to complete the restoration) house with their aging dog, Hypatia, and a boarder/babysitter named Maddy. All of these challenges are threatening to crumble the Fromes' marriage.

For the Fromes, the 2016 presidential election marked "the break between before and after, then and now." Ethan was convinced that it was really no big deal and everything would be okay because this is America. Zo's reaction is white-hot fury. That's when she came to help organize the group that became All Them Witches, a sobriquet bestowed by some old guy who was appalled at their activities. They happily adopted it as their own. The group organizes, makes posters, and marches to protest. They meet twice a week, many of them proudly wearing their pink hats.

With Zo's involvement with her group, Ethan suddenly has more of the household's domestic responsibilities. He has more of the care of Alex, including making sure she gets to bed on time. He feels all of these added responsibilities as something of an imposition, a sentiment with which Maddy sympathizes. The reader might here suspect that these two are headed toward an affair and Ethan seems like he would welcome that but Maddy has other things on her mind.

The fraught politics of the time impact all of their lives and it seems that the Fromes have forgotten why they moved to Starkfield in the first place. They had hoped to build a supportive and peaceful idyll that would encourage creativity and provide an environment where their daughter could develop into her best self. All of those good intentions now seem at risk. Can this marriage be saved? Should it be?

Ali Benjamin is a skilled writer. She tells her story through the character of Ethan. She presents him as a well-intentioned but misguided husband and father who doesn't really understand why his wife is so angry and what she is trying to accomplish through her activism. At the same time, Zo is presented sympathetically and we can see, as perhaps she can't, that Ethan himself may, in fact, be one of the men who is part of the problem that her group is protesting. Meanwhile, they both at times seem to lose sight of their daughter's needs. There are no real heroes here and it is hard to know just who one should root for. I choose Alex. She is a delightful character and her part in this narrative is often quite funny. The levity is most welcome.

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

  

Comments

  1. This is the first I've heard of this one. Thank you for sharing it with us.

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    1. This is another of those books that had been sitting in my reading queue for over a year, so long that I have forgotten why it was there. But it was an interesting read.

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  2. It's great when you find a book on your back list that you forgot about. You make it sound interesting, Dorothy, but I'm not sure this one is my cup-of-tea. P.x

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    1. I had several books that had been on my list for a very long time and I'm trying to clear them out. This one was...not bad.

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  3. Definitely would have passed on this by the cover and title alone but, you make it sound worth considering. Glad the humor worked for you.

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    1. Yeah, the cover and title are not very enticing, are they? I think I must have read a review of this one - maybe in The Times - and that's how it ended up on my list.

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  4. Interesting that her book is inspired by Ethan Frome. Does she give her characters a happier ending?

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    1. The ending is somewhat ambiguous and open to interpretation. I choose to interpret it as happy.

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  5. I liked Ethan Frome ... so it's interesting her story is inspired by that. I had not heard of this novel ... so thanks for bringing it to our attention. I had to laugh about it being set in Starkfield ... Uh-oh not again ... hope there's no sleds involved??

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    1. No sleds this time. That wasn't what smashed up!

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