“The Smash-Up” by Ali Benjamin

March 27th, 2021  |  Published in March 2021

Of the many novels published so far in 2021, few stand out for overall excellence; many are overpraised and veer into the whiny.  Ali Benjamin’s first novel for adults, “The Smash-Up”, is a fine exception.  Based upon Edith Wharton’s “Ethan Frome”, which I happened to have reread just last year, which is a very clever trope (too many writers are reinterpreting Jane Austen these days), “The Smash-Up” takes place in the Berkshire Mountains of Massachusetts.  A middle-aged husband and wife, and their very ADHD young daughter, have left New York City for a quieter life in the country: Benjamin’s most clever in utilizing this common American fantasy as the take off for the novel (the original Ethan Frome was a farmer near this town).  Zo, the wife, has been an independent documentary filmmaker, while Ethan was involved in a marketing business started by his college roommate Randy; both know that they can do work in Mass., though both are stalled in their careers.  A babysitter, Maddy, a beautiful woman drifter  in her late twenties, has been hired by Zo to be the daughter’s babysitter, and lives in their house.

Zo, however, has gotten involved with a local group of feminist women, right after Trump was elected President, and this group of women begins to take over Zo’s life, while Ethan does more and more of the parenting and involvement with their daughter’s school. Said school is a hilarious spoof on the kinds of private schools that the newly affluent want for their children (it’s named The Rainbow Seed School, a nice touch on Benjamin’s part). On the way home from an unpleasant meeting at this school, caused by constant disruptions by the daughter’s condition, Zo has gotten both nasty to the principal, the teachers, and the other parents; she and her women’s group are obsessed with the upcoming hearings when Brett Kavanaugh was nominated for the Supreme Court. On the way home from this meeting, going through an endless construction zone on the highway, Zo deliberately drives over/knocks over a bunch of cones in the road; stopped by the local police, she’s about to be let go with  a warning, but so provokes the police with her belligerence that they are basically forced to arrest her: that, it turns out, was Zo’s goal. A firestorm of social media make Zo the victim of male oppression, patriarchy, power relations, #Me, Too allegations.

Watching Zo more or less create this situation and then allow the truth of the accident to be lost in the social media blitz that follows, the reader watches in increasing horror as it appears as if this marriage won’t take the pressures of Zo’s constant belligerence about men/power et. al. Ethan, in the meantime, is asked by former partner Randy to attempt to blackmail a former model, now movie star, who’s accused Randy of sexual harassment; all lives in this novel seem to be collapsing under the weight of contemporary allegations, ideology, propaganda, social media, anger.  And if you’ve read “Ethan Frome”, you’ll know from page l that some awful tragedy will occur near the end of both novels, and so it does (the reader’s not sure who the victim will be, to Benjamin’s credit) . The awful tragedy takes place at a feminist rally in the town, with Zo as the lead victim, if you will, when a crazy young right-winger slams his truck into the crowd, and Zo and Ethan’s daughter is nearly killed in this deliberate act of violence, no doubt “appropriated” from real events we all witnessed in Charlottesville, Va., near the beginning of Trump’s presidency.  Since I won’t spoil what happens afterwards to Ethan and Zo, I’ll leave it at this: readers will vary wildly on their responses to what Zo does next; I think Benjamin’s ending is brilliant, if not fulfilling;  perhaps necessary would be the right word choice. It’s the marriage itself that’s the “smash-up” of the title, even though it’s literally the car accident, making this novel a very important one about the times in which we’ve been living.

“The Smash-Up” is also a cautionary tale on how easily situations can get out of control because of social media, constant news cycles and how a real incident is manipulated to serve supposedly larger aims and goals, and at what price.  Benjamin manages to make both Ethan and Zo sympathetic characters, no mean feat in a novel where many readers will want Ethan to “win”, and others, Zo to “win”. The author suggests that things are never so simple in a longish marriage with a lovely history.

–Daniel Brown

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