Bibliophoria: Jane Smiley's Duplicate Keys

Our favorite books arrive in flutters of luck. We take a class because it fits our university schedule and our professor assigns Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, something we’d otherwise mean to read our entire lives, but whose 1,000+ pages would send it to the bottom of the pile.

A friend mentions Bluets, and—after reading Maggie Nelson’s precise yet illusive prose—we wonder why we’d never heard of her and how, if it weren’t for a chance recommendation, we could have missed this moment of pure delight.

A beloved small publisher (say, Europa Editions or Pushkin Press, the ones that never let us down) releases new favorites in translation: Antal Szerb’s darkly funny Journey by Moonlight or Eros by Helmut Krausser.

Scruffy, foxed, long out-of-print volumes catch our eye in second-hand shops.

Like romantic love, our chance encounters with books are precarious. They’re fleeting and, because we almost miss them, all the more precious.

Through the years, I’ve read many of Jane Smiley’s novels. She’s always a dependable but surprising innovator: each new novel seems, impossibly, to top the one before. While she may have reached her pinnacle this month with the final volume of her 1,300-page Last Hundred Years Trilogy (though I fully expect her to surpass even this), Smiley has been writing classics for decades. You’ve probably read A Thousand Acres, her Pulitzer winner that reimagines King Lear, or her saga The Greenlanders, or even Horse Heaven or Ten Days in the Hills (a racy romp, that one). I’d caught up with the recent Private Life and the early story collection The Age of Grief. I knew my Jane Smiley—so I thought.

Then one day a lovely bookstore customer pressed into my hands Duplicate Keys, a novel Smiley published in 1984, clearly from her stable but proof that this writer has as many bundles of nuances and personalities as she does books. Check out the list of her publications: the titles run on.

Duplicate Keys, a thrilling literary murder mystery about trust and friendship, opens with Alice’s discovery of two young musicians—her best friend’s boyfriend and his band mate—shot dead in the living room of their locked apartment. They had long given out keys to strangers with abandon, but the closest of friends also had unfettered access. The tight-knit group wants to turn inward to comfort and mourn. With the deaths, though, long-held secrets seep into unspoken accusations, creating the most unlikely suspects.

At turns creepy, tender, poignant and terrifying, Duplicate Keys becomes a stay-up-too-late-at-night satisfying psychological whodunit, a textured fabric of group friendship and a look inside several romances as they end and begin.

While reeling from finding her friends’ bodies, distraught at the lack of progress by the investigator and at the unraveling secrets of people she thought she understood (all while trying to recover from an unexpected divorce), Alice stumbles upon a man she expects no one to approve. The intimate dialogue between lovers reads as crisp and fresh as another one of our favorites, Laurie Colwin:

“This is not what I imagined,” said Alice. “I mean, I just put that dress on an hour ago. I could have at least spilled something on it before taking it off.”
   Henry’s grin matched hers. “Not me,” he said. “I dared to dream. You should see my list: set table, put on meat, answer doorbell, do it on the living-room floor, wash broccoli. Everything.”

With seventeen works of fiction for adults (plus nonfiction and novels for kids), Jane Smiley remains the perfect writer to discover and rediscover. She defies any categorization aside from contemporary master, one who has built a solid, ever-surprising body of work that continues to please and to challenge. She becomes a favorite writer anew every few years.


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