Jane Smiley's 'Ten Days in the Hills'

Pulitzer-winning novelist Jane Smiley's latest book, Ten Days in the Hills, is a satirical portrait of an Oscar-winning director, his political-activist lover, his ex-wife and her lover. The book explores the culture of Hollywood against the U.S. invasion of Iraq.

ALEX CHADWICK, host:

And now to a different take on romance, this one set in the Hollywood hills. This is a new novel from writer Jane Smiley. The Pulitzer Prize-winner takes a work of 14th century Italian literature, that's Boccaccio's "Decameron," and she moves it to a Hollywood obsessed with sex and war. Los Angeles writer Veronique de Turenne has this review.

VERONIQUE DE TURENNE: If Jane Smiley's new Hollywood novel, "Ten Days in the Hills," were an actual Hollywood movie, the pitch might go like this: 10 characters spend 10 days in the foothills of L.A., eating, drinking, talking, fighting, having lots of graphic sex, arguing about the war in Iraq and telling stories. Not exactly blockbuster material, but with Smiley at the helm as writer, director and cinematographer, things turn out a lot better than you'd expect.

The book opens on the morning of the 2003 Oscars, just as the U.S. is invading Iraq. Max, a director who's pushing 60, is trying and failing to make love to his 50-year-old squeeze, Elena. Around them, an impromptu house party is forming.

There's Max's ex-wife, Zoey, a sexpot movie star who's traveling with her boyfriend, Paul, a yogi who might be enlightened or might just be a fraud. There's Max's uptight vegan daughter and Elena's goofball son, Max's agent, his ex-mother-in-law, a childhood friend and a neighbor from down the street.

Though they've gathered in Max's cozy hillside home in reaction to the shock of the newly launched war, Elena's the only one who's really freaked out. The rest of the gang is there to tells stories, lots and lots of stories: ghost stories, real-estate tales, Hollywood gossip, movie plots, love gone right, love gone wrong.

So what happens? Honestly, not to much. A couple gets together, and a couple breaks up. Elena hates the war. Someone gets socked in the jaw. Everyone has lots of sex. Oh, and Max wants to make a movie, "My Lovemaking with Elena," kind of an X-rated "My Dinner with Andre."

Max's agent is appalled. You want to make a Hollywood movie about an unmarried couple with grown children talking about the Iraq war and making love with graphic sex? It has every single thing that Hollywood producers hate and despise and that American audiences hate and despise: fornication, old people, current events and conversation.

Smiley lampoons plenty of other Hollywood buffoonery as well. There's the agent saying I try to think the smallest thought I can at any given moment. And there's this gem about "Lawrence of Arabia": I couldn't stand the idea of this blonde guy schlepping through the desert without any sun block.

But the Smiley goes and clogs things up with rants against the war, long speeches you think will never end. Great for an op-ed page, but for a novel, deadly.

Telling stories is the least offensive way to communicate because it's the least coercive, Max says. He's describing the inner workings of Alcoholics Anonymous, but he could well be talking to Smiley. Too bad she didn't listen.

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CHADWICK: The book is Jane Smiley's "Ten Days in the Hills," the reviewer, Los Angeles writer Veronique de Turenne.

MADELEINE BRAND, host:

And if you're looking for more to set the Valentine's Day mood, there's plenty of music and a lot more at npr.org.

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