[A] cleverly hyperlocal novel that unfolds during Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s Senate confirmation hearings in September 2018 ... There’s some heavy-handedness happening here: the Whartonian names, the witchiness, the crumbling edifice as stand-in for a world gone mad. I took notice and moved on. Benjamin is like an overly chatty but skilled magician; she earns herself a few twee flourishes by telling a modern and energetic story about a marriage on the skids ... Instead of steering us into an affair, Benjamin sets up an intricate obstacle course ... What’s at stake is the state of the Fromes’ union, but neither of them stops to consider this until they’ve both lost sight of their destination: the supportive, creative and thoughtful idyll they hoped to build together. Instead, the two change lanes so many times, they’re not even on the same highway.
[The novel] takes Wharton’s bleak, turn-of-the-century dirge and updates it to the equally bleak Trump era ... As Benjamin wrangles her characters into straits of heightened topicality, she focuses, like Wharton, exclusively on Ethan’s point of view. Through him, we see a culture mired in bewildering metamorphoses about which he remains deeply suspicious ... The novel nods toward a lot of hot buttons — transphobia, rape culture, hot takes, the whole post-truth smorgasbord — without ever really pushing any. Ethan is meant to typify male fragility but also — as the only character given full interiority — to earn our sympathies (or at least our interest). It is a difficult balancing act, and at times the scales tip toward villainy, as when Ethan crankily dismisses his wife for calling a customer service hotline ... It is not the transposition of that well-trod narrative and its character types that compels; it is the contrast sharpened in the act. Wharton’s world is isolated, stifling and dire, and the political implications of her characters’ choices are subtextual. In the polarized, interconnected present of Benjamin’s novel, everything is expressly political, even the ostensibly apolitical. What this shift sacrifices in symbolic subtlety, it earns back in emotional depth ... Perhaps the most effective update comes in the conclusion. Benjamin subverts Wharton’s notorious ending in a way that doesn’t just surprise; it complicates.
An unnamed narrator is making his or her way to Starkfield, Massachusetts, and offering roadside assistance and a ride to a haggard, haunted Ethan Frome. At Ethan’s empty house, the narrator sees a seemingly younger Ethan with his wife and daughter, begging the question of what happened to this apparently happy family ... Beyond being a fascinating example of adaptation and an effective character study, The Smash-Up offers up so much material for potential discussion. Gender politics, the gig economy, personal and professional responsibility, and the intersections between class, politics and violence --- all are touched on in this thoughtful and suspenseful novel. Whether or not it will lead anyone to read or reread Wharton’s original, The Smash-Up is in vivid and vibrant conversation with both the source material and our own times.