I Smile Back by Amy Koppelman
Perhaps no other theme lends itself as readily to literary interpretation as that of “home place.” Yet, how is evaluation shaped when the concept of home doesn’t extend further than its actual framework -- when home is the construct? In I Smile Back, Amy Koppelman explores with ruthless honesty a woman come undone, this shocking portrayal revelatory in how the structure of a family can be destabilized at its very foundation.
Playing out in North Jersey in the weeks following the summer of 2002, this novel’s partition into first and second acts, as well as its intermission, suggests a dramatically staged performance artfully tempered by an unequivocally grounded style. From affairs to alcohol and drugs, Laney’s demise is realized in the pages of Koppelman’s second novel as divergent from any theatric or phantasmagoric act; rather, scene after raw scene unravels into ruinous bearing on her family life.
From the book’s opening, in which the reader finds Laney naked before a mirror and scrutinizing the elements from which she is made, it is clear that her search for beauty is far more than an extension of the physical. This protagonist’s preoccupation with pretty, and its disastrous consequences, will be handled the way “she likes to do it”: with a deftness and precision acutely experienced with every instance of her “bad behavior.” Laney’s solution to “dig neatly, draw just a hint of blood before claiming” responsibility for her choices may serve to appease her conscience, but the “vague image of motherly love” she hopes to exhibit never fully materializes. Instead, her actions betray a sense of isolation and unworthiness precipitated by her father’s leaving, and although they actualize during a brief five-week period, the responsible lingering emotional effects are visceral in their ruthless depictions.
Laney’s vices culminate in the first act with her running a red light and “letting go.” But when she makes it through the intersection “safe... untouched,” her true sense of desperation and fear over her home life’s disintegration can no longer be contained with degrading sexual liaisons or liquor and pills, because as Laney realizes: “desperation, not desire, is the root of atrocity.” And it is Koppelman’s evincing of such atrocity that forces her reader to repeatedly confront whether Laney’s actions are indeed desperate -- or simply deplorable. For Laney is a character that sails close to the unredeemable boundary line; her mistakes and attempts to rectify them during the rehab intermission maintaining the pretense she has so carefully cultivated regarding her familial role, strengthening the notion that she’s “gotten away with it.” Laney may return home after her sojourn as “one of them,” but doubts will swell over her authenticity with every fake smile -- for even when her lips are closed, the reader is aware that Laney’s teeth are present.
Koppelman’s achievement rests not solely in her characterization of a mother fighting the urge to harm her kids, however, but in the children’s inability to ward off their mother’s perilous attention. Lacey’s incongruity -- heading off for a liaison with a friend’s husband, yet stopping on the way to buy Eli and Janey cookies -- reflects the damage she will ultimately cause these kids, despite her best efforts. The more concentrated young Eli’s attempts are in “straightening out [the] lines” of his unstable home life, the more frequent the urges Laney is forced to confront: her realization that home “doesn’t apply to her anymore,” and the inherent implications in the belief that “happiness must be accounted for” responsible for a foreboding presence in the family. Living with her broken children and long-suffering husband, Laney’s understanding that there is “always a house” is no longer enough to quell the damage she will cause.
Despite a journey home, (albeit to a different structure filled with her father’s new family) Laney remains captivating in her certainty that although her family’s dissolution is her sole responsibility to deter, she can’t quite conjure the necessary thwarting efforts. For the only thing as ferocious as Laney’s lack of preventive action is her behavior, the reader powerless against her vice: an addict hooked to Koppelman’s potent writing and her protagonist’s unpredictable conduct. There can be no happy conclusion to Laney’s story; no home place in which she will find protection from the raging elements she conjures. Yet, Koppelman manages to ensure a fitting conclusion -- one deserving of the reader’s rapt attention. Laney will ultimately smile without enticement or provocation. What she must do in order to feel what lies behind the smile, however, is best left to the reader to discover... from the safety of their own home.
I Smile Back by Amy Koppelman
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