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Jane Smiley: Good Faith

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Good Faith

Author: Jane Smiley
Publisher: Knopf

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Jane Smiley's 12th novel, Good Faith, operates just like real life: It introduces so many characters, minor events, slight diversions, themes, anecdotes, and pathways that it's impossible to discern a single summarizing plot or direction until it's all over. That can be a narrative barrier, particularly when the book first impatiently launches into the details of life in a small New England town as though readers should already know the locals and locale as intimately as first-person narrator Joe Stratford. As Good Faith opens in 1982, Stratford is making a more-than-adequate living as a realtor, working under local developer and entrepreneur Gordon Baldwin. Divorced, childless, 40, unattached, and unaware that he's missing anything, Stratford seems content with a day-to-day life spent with troublesome clients (like the Sloans, who've picked through every house in the area for a year, and still can't commit), troublesome builders (like Gottfried Nuelle, a talented artisan who hates everyone who buys his houses, and attempts to stymie each deal), friendly faces (like the Davids, a perky gay couple who apparently live to remodel), and unknown factors (like Marcus Burns, a former IRS employee who comes to town full of schemes that quickly balloon from "big" to "grandiose"). But for all his friends and successes, Stratford often seems like a hollow man whose surface is only reflected in other people's comments about him. Baldwin's married daughter Felicity calls him "kind," while Burns clearly sees him as a capable dealmaker. But apart from the occasional twinge of emotion, Stratford brings the same compliant equanimity to a passionate affair with Felicity and to his struggles with Nuelle's irascibility, Baldwin's unpredictability, and Burns' increasing influence over the area. Smiley fleshes out Good Faith with a mountain of down-to-earth detail, and the financial explications may be excessive for readers who aren't as interested in the '80s speculation-and-gentrification boom, or in mortgages, loans, zoning permits, and real-estate deals. But the personal details and well-drawn characters make the book far more than just another financial-bubble rags-and-riches tale. Stratford's relative facelessness in the center of the all-too-believable storm invites readers to step into his shoes and live out his adventures, which aren't always pleasant, but are unequivocally immersive and suspenseful. Like life, Good Faith doesn't impose a neat story arc or a pat moral on its events. Instead, it just allows them to unfold, relying on unpredictability to keep its participants involved and focused up to the end.