Smiley's range as a writer is always surprising. Eschewing both the tragic dimension of A Thousand Acres and the satiric glee of Moo, her 12th book is a clever and entertaining cautionary tale about America's greedy decade of the 1980s. Narrator Joe Stratford is a genial, well-liked realtor in a small New England town who's respected for his honesty; even his divorce was friendly. When smooth-talking Marcus Burns comes to town, fresh from a decade working at the IRS, where he's learned how to manipulate the law to avoid paying taxes, he convinces Joe and other decent but naïve people that it's never been easier to get rich quick. Marcus envisions a multi-use golf club and housing development. With the help of the conniving president of the local S&L, he easily finds money to purchase Salt Key Farm, a beautiful estate on 580 acres. The reader knows that the bubble will burst, but not how or when; frissons of suspense keep building as Smiley describes the fine points of land assessment, soil evaluation, loan applications and permit hearings in surprisingly riveting detail. Joe's personal life, too, is a tightrope walk. He's having an affair with a married woman, Felicity Baldwin, the daughter of his mentor, Gordon. When that cools, he takes up with another woman who seems perfect, but who turns out to be as devious as Marcus. What makes the story beguiling is Smiley's appreciation of the varieties and frailties of human nature. Every character here is fresh and fully dimensional, and anybody who lived through the '80s will recognize them—and maybe themselves. 200,000 first printing. (Apr. 28)
Forecast:Only readers seeking the emotional wallop of A Thousand Acres will be disappointed by this lively tale, written with literary finesse. Booksellers can bet on a bestseller.