Early in Jane Smiley's sinuous new novel, we hear Max, a Hollywood director whose career is ebbing, describe his idea for a new film: "A man and a woman are alone in their room for 90 minutes, and they make love and have a conversation." His friend Stoney tells him to forget it. "Max," he says, "that's called pornography." Nope, says Max. "Not if they have a conversation."
That's a pretty good description of Ten Days in the Hills (Knopf; 445 pages), a leisurely stretch of talking and rutting that takes its structure from The Decameron and a good part of its spirit from The Kama Sutra. Let's start with The Decameron. In Boccaccio's 14th century compendium of tales, 10 people depart Florence, where the Black Death is raging, for two weeks of food, drink and storytelling in the Tuscan countryside. In Smiley's update, the Iraq war stands in for the plague. Los Angeles, the silkier parts, plays Tuscany. As the war begins, 10 people find themselves in Max's spacious house in Pacific Palisades, where they trade stories, make breakfast and couple--here's the Kama Sutra part--in high definition.
Max's lover Elena is there, consumed by fear and loathing of the war. Her son Simon, a drifting, genial studpuppy, and Max's beautiful daughter Isabel show up. Then in walks Isabel's mother Zoe, a well-known actress, who brings along Paul, her bushy-bearded lover and guru. Plus, there's Zoe's serene mother Delphine, her friend Cassie and a couple of Max's buddies.
There's a lot of amusing interaction but not much of a plot. Eventually these wayward but well-meaning souls relocate to the impossibly sumptuous estate of a Russian mogul. You know all the while that there's a parched, nasty world out there, just waiting to correct their follies, and that the consolations of love and sex and art, which Smiley endorses all through this lovely book, won't really protect them. But our author lives up to her name in the best way. She blesses those people, shortcomings and all.