On Reading “The Smart One” by Jennifer Close

 Queens Park, Toronto

Change can be beautiful (Queens Park,Toronto)

There are things that define each of us. For some, if a day or a week goes by without going to the gym or exercising in some way, feelings of lethargy and sadness set in. For others, time outdoors is needed to feel whole. For others still, without time to cook and prepare amazing food, it is difficult to stay sane. We all have things that we gravitate towards.

For me, it has always been words, and reading in particular, that makes me feel fully alive, myself and content. Perhaps because writing and reading bring me so much joy though, they have always seemed like unproductive habits that ought to be replaced by a more useful, more diverse set of activities. In recent months, I’ve been trying to read less, to stop writing, and try and focus on other things.

And without really intending to (Arabic course +Ramadan), for the past two months, I haven’t read or properly written either.

Among many other lessons, that time taught me that you can’t change who you are. That there is a reason why the thing that you are most passionate about is referred to as a calling. That thing, that strange, terrifying thing calls out to you insistently until you respond or until it weakens and fades away, so buried by other responsibilites and commitments that you can no longer hear that reminder. Until you do respond, you are perhaps not quite your fullest expression of yourself.

Those two months taught me that while there are lots of things I’d like to explore and learn about, and many good habits to add to my life, I stil have to nourish that which is core.

I mention all of this partly as a reminder to myself to keep up with this blog, but also as a context for this post.  A couple of days ago I read a book called “The Smart One” by Jennifer Close, and like the past couple of months, the book was a reminder that while we change and develop throughout our lives, there is so much of our personality and who we are that is intrinsic. Below are a few reflections from the read.

1) Everyone has their own struggles, their own challenges

The book details the journey of two sisters named Martha and Claire, their younger brother Max (and his girlfriend Cleo), and their mother. You learn about their challenges and struggles from their own perspective, and are privy to each character making assumptions about the other members of their family. The changing perspectives and multiple narrators make you realize that there is no character that has things ‘easier’ than the others. Each character simply has their own (different) challenges, and is struggling and succeeding in their own unique way.

2) Being a parent isn’t easy

As you observe how the mother in the novel worries about her children as they strive to gain more clarity in their life, you empathize with her emotions.  You realise how difficult their transition is for her, and how much she wants stability and goodness for her kids. Rather than feeling frustrated as she worries about their whereabouts and activities, she can understand where she is coming from:

“She wanted to tell them that it would never go away, that feeling, that worry that your child was going to be okay, but she was pretty sure that they were figuring that out already. They’d have to watch Nina start walking, watch her walk up the stairs, sure that she was going to tumble down. They’d have to take her to school, pray that she made friends, hope that no other little kids were mean to her. They’d watch her get in fights, get left out, get cut from a sports team, not get into the college that she wanted. They had so much heartbreak ahead of them. (p.330)

3)  There is no excuse for rudeness.

As you empathize, the book calls on you to check your own personal behaviour. This novel is a story of adult children coming back to live in their childhood home, and the transitions described are challenging for all characters involved. When there are outbursts in the book, you can see the impact of an argument on multiple individuals, and it reminds you to be more careful with your words in your actual life.

“Claire grabbed her bag and walked outside, although she didn’t really know where she was going. She hated the way that she acted here. As soon as she stepped on the sidewalk, she felt guilty. What a brat she was. They’d let her come back and stay with them, and she couldn’t even stand to listen to their suggestions. Why was she like this? The worst part was that she couldn’t help it. The anger seemed to come out of her before she even knew what was happening. (p.285)

4) You are responsible for your life.

Through the juxtaposition of different characters, the book reminds you to be accountable to your goals and vision for your life. It reminds you that baby steps towards goals should be clear progressive steps towards things you want to learn. It is a reminder to be gentle with yourself, but also not to allow yourself to settle into complacency. Routines where you aren’t growing and where you are too comfortable are just as risky as being overly optimistic.

The novel opens with both the eldest sister, Martha realising that she has been working as a manager at JCrew for six years (she is now nearly 31) after she had a emotional breakdown as a new nursing grad, and that she hasn’t taken steps towards re-entering the health care profession since then. Within the same opening section, the second sister Claire is struggling with credit card debt in Manhattan, but reluctant to make a needed change to get it under control. Shortly after the novel opens Claire realises that she needs assistance and moves back home, and the path of these two characters is a reminder that regardless of where you are presently, the important thing is having a broader perspective of where you are trying to go and the kind of person you are trying to become.

5) Urban love stories are real

She was so happy to be back in New York that sometimes she’d be walking down the street and she’d get a rise in her chest and a giddiness that bubbled out of her throat. It made her smile at strangers. She couldn’t help it. These strange surges of happiness seemed to come out of  nowhere. Even if she’d wanted to stop herself from bouncing up and down and smiling, she didn’t think she’d have been able to. “(335)

Though the passage above refers to New York, it could apply to any city that is beloved. It is a reminder that while it is the people in a city that makes it special, it is also the energy and buzz of the city itself. You can love a city for its buildings, for its design, for its walkable spaces. You can love it for its transit system, for its cafes. You can love a city even before you build a network of people you love within it.

6) Family is a gift

“And she did miss them of course. As soon as she left, she missed them all, more than she had before she moved back. It was like she felt their absence more now. That was the worst part about leaving home – no matter what, it always felt a little sad. (p.334)

Finally, this book was a reminder that family is a blessing. That transitions and change can be challenging, but that the time we have with the people who have known us the most, and the places that we have lived the longest are special.

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