Readers who enjoyed Diane Dunning’s charming collection of very short fiction, One Short Year, will probably remember Greta Smart. Greta appeared in the story “Wine Notes” as a college student desperately trying to pursue her “dreams of becoming a sophisticate” by taking a wine-tasting class. Now, in this novel, we find Greta having graduated college and living and working in New York City. Greta has matured a great deal, but she is still floundering, still trying to develop sophistication and, more urgently, still trying to find Mr. Right.
This is basically the story of Greta fretting over the fact that she is twenty-seven years old and not only still unmarried, but without a serious boyfriend. Meatier matters, including her relationships with her mother and her dying grandmother, give the story more body than you might expect from the basic storyline. In the course of the story, Greta learns some important things about her family. But the most important things she learns are about herself. In a bowling alley in her Midwestern hometown, she realizes that the sophisticated life she has been trying to create might not be the most satisfying. While visiting her brother and sister-in-law, who are struggling with financial problems and raising an autistic child, she begins to realize how shallow are her own values, and how love and grace can be brought to bear on problems much bigger than her own.
Dunning has a sharp eye for detail and a seemingly effortless knack for giving secondary characters depth. She manages to pack all sorts of meaning into small, almost offhand bits of description:
They gave short little waves good-bye to each other, as people do when in tight spaces or in areas where nonverbal communication must also be whispered.
The first line of this book, “You’re not beautiful,” he said, might make my list of favorite first lines. This is not a funny book, but Dunning slips in subtle humor throughout, such as this description of one of Greta’s colleagues:
He regularly haunted the entryway of her cubicle. He’d dangle his arm over the metal edge of the partition and furrow his brow at her as if he were in deep thought or about to lay an egg. His main objective at these moments was to be seen and heard by other employees as he criticized Greta’s work and cemented his reputation of leadership.
As you can see from that passage, Dunning is able to flesh out secondary characters with only a few well-placed brushstrokes. She tells us more about the guy who works the shoe rental counter at the bowling alley than some novelists manage to convey about their main characters.
I rarely find myself saying this about books these days, but I think Greta Smart Figures It Out could have been a bit longer. While the characterizations, the descriptions, and the details are rich and carefully crafted, the events of the story seem to be rushed, especially toward the end. On the other hand, the sparsity of action leaves room to focus on Greta’s emotional development, which is as subtle and delicate as Dunning’s writing.