Laney Brooks is a woman in agony, suffering from an undefined malady that makes standard housewife ennui—boredom from carpooling or picking up dry cleaning—look like a picnic. Laney’s despair, ably depicted by Amy Koppelman in her affecting second novel, I Smile Back, is rooted in childhood. Specifically, it is tied to the abandonment of Laney’s family by her father and to her abiding sense of worthlessness. Laney’s adulthood has been marked by success (husband and beloved children, SUV, nice house in northern New Jersey) as well as self-destruction (affairs, drugs, alcohol abuse). And her darker impulses lead to a halfhearted suicide attempt and brief institutionalization.
To see Laney’s plight, though, solely as a reaction to her dad is to ignore the myriad anxieties competing to defeat her. Always a beauty, Laney undergoes scrupulous self-examination and finds coarse hairs sprouting on her face, liver spots, the descent of her cosmetically enhanced breasts—evidence marking “the onset of her decline.” More unsettling than these harbingers of decay is the reminder that her children, Eli and Janey, will grow older, too, and will one day be reluctant to embrace their mother or accept her kisses. She grieves already for that loss.
In addition, there is Laney’s resignation to meaninglessness and her struggle to shield her kids from this nihilism. She struggles not to voice out loud her mental refrain “And then you die,” even as it compels her to have violent sex with a stranger outside a strip-mall bar, to masturbate with her daughter’s teddy bear, and to publicly humiliate her husband. Despite the brutal recklessness of her behavior, she yearns to preserve for Janey and Eli the sense of hope that she had long ago, though now the exact opposite hangs shackles around her ankles.
Laney grasps that “the constant reminder of the futility in life, the pain, the utter disconnect, is the disease talking.” But medication and psychiatric care fail to support her often wavering desire “to mother her kids, wife her husband.” She sees the facial twitches Eli develops when she returns from a stay at Blue Hill Hospital as evidence of damage she has already caused and perhaps passed on genetically; nevertheless, she cannot force herself to stick around to help see him through. Instead, she gives in to the pull of following her father’s footsteps out the door and away from home. She does so shortly after being beaten in alley, and it’s hard not to imagine that this prompts her to see leaving as an act of compassion.
In describing Laney’s unraveling, Koppelman returns to themes she explored in her debut, A Mouthful of Air (2003). With Laney, Koppelman conjures a protagonist who is at times so contemptuous, she risks losing readers’ sympathy. But the punishment she inflicts on herself is the most merciless, and her acute awareness of this fact make Laney a compelling character whose longing for the unbridled happiness of childhood will never stop haunting her.