In today's Real Housewives of Wherever infused media, it is easy to look at an upper middle class suburban wife and mother and think she has it all-- or at least that she has it so easy. But the portrait of one such woman, Laney Brooks, that author Amy Koppelman paints in her sophomore novel, "I Smile Back," challenges that stereotype, as she is instead a bit like the female version of Christian Slater in My Own Worst Enemy. By day, Laney is dropping her kids off at school and scheduling manicures and trips to the grocery store, but by night she is pill-popping and downing glasses of vodka like they are water. To prejudge her as just another spoiled socialite who has too much time on her hands very quickly proves unfair, though, as at its core, "I Smile Back" seems to be a post-traumatic stress tale if there ever was one.
Though Laney has a husband who built a respectable empire up from days on the streets as a bookie, a big house with a pool, a new SUV, a new glittering diamond wedding ring, and two adorable-- and still remarkably innocent-- children, she has demons that still eat her up so badly inside she acts out time and again, basically just begging for her loved ones to turn their backs on her the way she perceives her father to have done when he walked out on her, her mother, and her brother when she was just a child. Laney's demons appear to be one-part genetic (her alcoholism is something shared with her absent father) and one-part oxymoronic desperate attempt to numb the pain from her father's alcoholism and subsequent absence. Laney is a walking dichotomy: she claims to love her father more than anything but her contradictory actions (such as the multiple affairs) prove she has much more anger within her than she is willing to admit.
But this time around the loved ones in Laney's life don't leave her; in fact they will do anything they can to save her, and what is just so tragic about her tale is that although she can see that, it's never quite enough. And when her own son starts to exhibit the obsessive behaviors that will only later manifest themselves in abuse or addiction, she simply chooses to ignore them, still stuck in the selfish mentality of the child whose emotional maturity was stunted the day her father walked out.
"I Smile Back" is not a traditional novel: it is told in three acts, and each one is clearly marked and reads more like a manuscript for a play than a literary work (the middle section is even called "Intermission," perhaps to be used as a time to reflect). But Laney is not a traditional heroine (yes despite all she puts the readers through, we still find ourselves genuinely rooting for her to find whatever she needs to feel good-- to feel whole-- even though we know that hope is futile), so this style suits her. In many ways, "I Smile Back" reads like the train-of-thought inner workings of Laney's mind: raw, real, and yes, self-deprecating. In other ways, the book steps outside of Laney and the narration begins to sound like someone who is watching Laney and reporting back on what she is doing-- but that does not read like a editorial flaw but rather yet another intentional look at her damaged psyche: sometimes to protect ourselves, we detach from our emotions, and it's like we step outside ourselves and just become spectators to avoid the sheer power of feeling.