Jennifer Close's novel, The Smart One is a story of shifting family dynamics and growing-up. The Smart One follows the Coffey family, as three of the adult children have left and returned to the nest.
Claire moves back home after her fiancé leaves her and she is drowning in a pile of credit card debt. Max has just graduated from college and his girlfriend is pregnant, creating a situation where his parent's basement has been converted into a mini-apartment for the new arrival. Martha has mental issues that prompted her to quit her nursing job and have kept her stuck in retail employment, not earning enough to live on her own. The Coffey family struggles to redefine their family dynamic and boundaries with their new circumstances.
Close's subject is sure to hit home with many adults finding themselves having to move back home with their parents due to the tough economy. The situations presented in this story and the way that the characters react, feel very real and very relevant. The story reads as a slice-of-life, without any earth shattering plot twists or a dramatic story arc. Close writes a story that is very much character driven.
I most related to Claire, who finds herself in a desperate situation after making a decent stab at independent living in New York City. Claire has a good job, a nice apartment and is months away from getting married, when her fiancé dumps her. She cannot afford to live on her own and just curls up in a ball and relies on credit cards to get her through, until the debt piles up and everything has spiraled out of control. She lets her depression control the situation. When she moves back home, she gets a basic job to pay off the debt, but starts seeing a guy from her high school that is in a similar situation himself. They fall into a quasi-relationship that basically doesn't extend beyond the boundaries of his parent's basement. I wanted to ring Claire's neck and get her out of her funk, but at the same time, I could totally relate. The circumstances have been different, but I've acted out in similar ways to Claire. It was frustrating to read.
Overall, I enjoyed the story and I thought that Close is a solid writer and keen observer of human behavior. There was one thing that really bothered me. Normally, I don't give a lot of thought to the title of the book, but with this story, I couldn't let it go. I couldn't quite figure out what or who the title referenced. I think that it may have been intentionally vague, like it sort of fits all of the characters and is a statement on the fact that everyone's contribution to a family dynamic is unique. There is no such thing as "The Smart" kid. However, the vagueness of the title just drove me a bit batty. I felt like it made me lose my focus towards the story or that I spent an unnecessary amount of time thinking about it, more than the author would have intended.
Finally, as Thanksgiving is tomorrow, this book was a timely read. Family dynamics can be bumpy and the story was a good reminder to remember that just because you're blood, doesn't mean that you are necessarily are similar. Sometimes time apart makes it easier to spend time together and to appreciate the differences. The Smart One is a great book to read if you are having trouble connecting with your own family. The fictional Coffey family gave me a sense of ease and perspective.