Ordinary Love and Good Will

Ordinary Love and Good Will, by Jane Smiley, is not a typical book for me. It nevertheless found its way to me at a fortunate timing. It was a recommendation from a credible source shortly before a trip. I enjoyed reading it very much when I was in the air traveling across the country in mid November, and I even sang my extravagant praises of this book to others at the time.


When I picked this book up again recently, I could not settle into reading it at all. It falls into this mysteriously sensitive category of books, which requires a certain temperament to read. A very analytical mind tends to get confused and frustrated by the delicacy of feelings portrayed in the stories. My mind has been residing in the analytical world lately. When I attempt to re-read some passages of this book, I fail to appreciate the intricacy of the human relationships and the countless small yet magnificent turns of life as I enjoyed before. This time around I have a very detached attitude holding the book, murmuring to the characters to just “keep calm and carry on”.

I may change my view at a future attempt to read this book again. For now, my experience with this book indicates a 50-50 chance that you might like it.


Here are the passages I highlighted when I read the book for the first time.

One weird thing about Americans is the way they talk as if what they want actually has significance.

In my experience, there is only one motivation, and that is desire. No reasons or principles contain it or stand against it.

I could say that the terror of my divorce and its aftermath tamed me, made me an accountant to my very soul, when I could have become a bush pilot or a naturalist, or I could say, like most people, that I simply couldn’t get away. The truth seems to me more delicate, having more to do with how lovely this spot it, how I need to see it develop through the seasons, and not only this spot but three or four others, all within an hour’s drive of my house. The joke is on me, who has turned out to have that farmer’s attachment to familiar places, after all.

I’m sure that what I really wanted was not to love him but to be him.

I try to accept the mystery of my children, of the inexplicable ways they diverge from parental expectations, of how, however much you know or remember of them, they don’t quite add up.

I have learned, over the last twenty years, to embrace the possible and not to mourn the past.

Full many a flower is born to blush unseen, and waste its sweetness on the dessert air.

I don’t know how the story has affected them, but having told it makes me hollow with fear. It is the way that I have contained it all these years that has given me strength, and now it seems to me that I have risked that.

However my life looks to others, what it looks like to me is a child’s tower of blocks, built in ignorance and without a plan.

I think that I, too, have done the things I least wanted to do, that I have given my children the two cruelest gifts I had to give, which are these, the experience of perfect family happiness, and the certain knowledge that it could not last.

Sometimes I can see the structure I might have built so clearly that the frustration of what I’ve done is explosive. Here we live, here we will always live. No gardens, barns, sheds will ever mitigate the permanence of this mistake.

You know, I always think I’m going to love being admired, but then I get nervous when it happens, I think because you shouldn’t be admired for doing something you needed to do. I mean, until I moved here, I was so filled with frustrated yearning that it was this or suicide. When I was Tommy’s age, I thought it was yearning to be on my own. When I was a teenager, I thought it was lust. When I was in the army, and in Vietnam, I thought it was the desire to go home. But it was none of those things. I never figured out what it was, but it ceased.

It is a smell so thick and various that I can nearly see it, and I inhale sharply.

Privately, I think she feels humbled, which is a feeling she is in favor of as a way of life.

But the moral of all wish tales is that, though wishes express power or desire, their purpose is to reveal ignorance: the more fulfilled wishes, the more realised ignorance.

Citing these pieces to you, I re-discovered the beauty of this book. The characters depicted and the stories told are very far away from my own personal experience. That brought a new kind of freshness and imagination to me.