3 reviews

I Smile Back
by Amy Koppelman

Published: 2008-12-01
Paperback : 194 pages
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In the follow-up to her acclaimed debut, which drew comparisons from critics to The Bell Jar and The Awakening, Amy Koppelman delivers an aggressive and unnerving portrait of a modern suburban woman. __Laney Brooks acts out. Married with kids, she takes the drugs she wants, sleeps with the men she ...
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Koppelman mostly writes from inside Laney's disillusioned mind, ricocheting between the quotidian details of wife and motherhood and big-picture musings, forming exquisite stand-alone tone poems." Elle

"[Koppelman's] brave and challenging look beyond appearances of beauty to the ugly reality of a disturbed mind will remain with readers long after they've finished the book." Library Journal

"Amy Koppelman's I Smile Back is amazing. There's wit, speed, range, and complete authority here. Among other qualities, it has presence you hold in your hands a pretty wild ride and a novel as fascinating as this one seems destined to make its way to Hollywood. Read the book, instead: it's bound to be sharper, more moving, and flat-out better than any adaptation will be." Darin Strauss

"Amy Koppelman probes deeply into the dark and cavernous recesses of a picture-perfect suburban mom, and emerges with one of the most terrifying novels I've read in ages. It's a glorious little explosion of a book." Dani Shapiro

"Laney Brooks is a heroine on par with Joan Didion's Maria Wyeth. She captivates not only because she recognizes the darkness closing in around her, but because a part of her welcomes it." David Benioff

In the follow-up to her acclaimed debut, A Mouthful of Air, which drew comparisons from critics to The Bell Jar and The Awakening, Amy Koppelman delivers an unrestrained statement on the modern suburban woman.

Laney Brooks acts out. Married with kids, she takes the drugs she wants, sleeps with the men she wants, and disappears when she wants. Lurking beneath Laney's composed surface is the impulse to follow in the footsteps of her father, to leave and topple her family's balance in the process.

Editorial Review

No editorial review at this time.



North Jersey

Labor Day, 2002


Up and around, down. She stops, glances at herself, pushes

closer. What Laney sees in the mirror doesn't surprise her

anymore. Her body is what it is, ravaged by childbirth, ravaged

by too many years of pretending to be naturally thin. People

have always told her she's beautiful. People still do, but less than

they used to.

Laney starts again, lifting her right breast this time. It is

heavier than she thinks it should be, but heavier compared to

what? It's hard to remember them before the boob job. It's not

like she had perky breasts to begin with. But these? She lets

this one fall, and it does, with a nearly inaudible thud, a sound

so hollow she wants to crumple up into the shag carpet of her

dressing room and disappear.

She looks up and away, then back. There are no new wrinkles.

Her mother had wrinkles by this age, but other than the fine

lines that flank her mouth, Laney is wrinkle-free. She looks

closer. There are, though, two discolorations on her left cheek.

A mole had settled between them, darker than the spots, but

not black. She brings the tweezers to her face. Every month or

so she finds the mole has sprouted a hair; she plucks the hair.

She also grows a hair just under her chin. One dark hair, pubic

in texture. She plucks that one too.

Interesting, she thinks, how they grow in a harmony of sorts,


the mole hair and chin. They mark the onset of her decline. One

day, sooner than later, her kids will flinch when she kisses them.

Laney cringes for a second, remembering herself as a little girl,

her Aunt Edna's wiry whiskers scraping against her own cheek.

Laney looks closer at her face, then down. Her nipples were

deformed. That much she remembers. After the babies they

were larger than the silver dollar pancakes the kids eat at IHOP,

brown, bumpy. These stand at attention, two bright eyes, ready

to eat.

It's not her breasts. Her forehead's smooth, so it's not that

either. Is it the liver spots on her face, the mole? Could it be her

feet? What's making her feel so ugly?

Laney brings a glass of wine to her mouth, empties it. She

checks her feet. No, her feet are okay, a deep plum on her toes.

She reminds herself as she rubs the palm of her hand against

the bottom of her heel, soft, still soft, that she should be happy for

this. Some women her age have already lost their feet.

Laney sits, the carpet in her closet, ivory and loose, gathers

around her thighs. She puts her still-nice feet out in front of her,

stretches her legs, and slides an inch or so back from the mirror.

Next to her a jar of rubbing alcohol rests on a lavender hand

towel. She opens the jar, dips the tweezers into the liquid, pours

herself a second glass of wine.

Laney locates another rogue pube tucked in the crease of her

upper thigh. She pushes her thumbs together to loosen it, but

the hair won't give. She takes the tweezers, turns its sharp point

in the direction of her skin and scrapes. Just a slight sting. She

likes to do it this way, dig neatly, draw just a hint of blood before

claiming it.

She wipes the hair onto the hand towel, cuts four more times

and then stops. She looks back at herself, hating what she sees:

her scarred stomach, her fake breasts, the panicked look in her


Laney leans forward. She never much liked looking at it, not


even as a child. She inspects it, all trimmed and waxed. She is

more manicured than her front lawn. But it is a used pussy.

Stretched out and unforgiving.

Laney pushes herself up off the ground, walks over to the

window, and watches her husband practice free throws. Night

after night. Bounce. Aim. Shoot. Bruce stops, adjusts the volume

on his . . . do you still call it a boom box? All these years later.

Still with “Thunder Road.”

She remembers the moment she knew - cruising down the

shore, T-tops off, Born to Run on the stereo. Buckled, high, wild

about fucking on the beach. Oh my gosh, on the beach, really!? - this

was the man she wanted to spend her life with.

She was silent, timid. Not Bruce. He moaned, keeping time

with the waves. He didn't worry about getting busted by some

cop. No one's gonna ruin our good time. I'd never let anyone do that to

you, beautiful.

After, Bruce took her hand and walked her over to that dump

of a restaurant that was built to look like a windmill. He ordered

cheese fries, a Coke. Laney trailed him up the stairs, sat at the

cozy table for two, black resin chairs.

The windmill turned above their heads, cars passed. Laney

watched Bruce eat the fries, one after the other, the power in

that. She even tasted one, one that he placed on her tongue,

thick and hot with cheese. His sweatshirt wrapped around her

shoulders. Salty air. Salty fries. She didn't - She simply didn't

consider the future.

Laney turns away from the window and walks over to the sink.

She opens the medicine cabinet and reaches for a prescription

container. She shouldn't but she does.

Her mother once asked Laney how Bruce planned to support

them, but Laney ignored her. Choosing instead to fill cardboard

boxes with trinkets, giving particular care to a wide and varied

collection of colorful glass figurines, while that crazy little dog

- the crazy Maltese Bruce gave her for her birthday, ran around


her bedroom. Remember that room you grew up in, who you where back

then, when you were a girl still, another girl from a lavender bedroom?

Laney removes a cotton ball from a covered jar on her vanity,

wets it with make-up remover, sweeps it across one eyelid then

the other. She rinses, bit by bit, warm sudsy water.

I asked, how are you going to support yourselves?

I'm finishing college, Ma, and Bruce is going to sell insurance.

Please, he's a bookie.

It could be worse. He could be a drug dealer.

Laney kissed her mother on the forehead. She knew how to

work her, how to kiss her in such a way that her mother would

give her anything - even permission to leave.

You're only twenty-two.

You were nineteen.

And single before thirty.

Ma didn't question after that. Instead, knees firmly planted in

carpet, she began folding Laney's winter sweaters.

That dog of yours is going to shit on the carpet.

His name is Jesse James.

Bruce liked those kinds of movies - Butch Cassidy, Bonnie and

Clyde, Josie Wales - outlaw stuff. Laney liked them too, kind of

dangerous, kind of fun.

Fine, Jesse. Jesse James is going to shit on the carpet.

Ma was busy organizing the pile of folded sweaters by color,

light to dark, bluish tones to black.

It's August, Ma. It's not like I'm moving across the country. I'll be a

half-hour away. I'll come home for these sweaters.

You don't know, she said, what you need.


Laney sinks into warm bath water, slides her neck down cool

porcelain. It hadn't occurred to her. What she might need. That

she -

It's Labor Day and Laney didn't barbeque. Neighboring

beef surrounds them. She stops herself. The sky is clear. A


high-pitched whistle is followed by a crackle, then a boom. It used

to be that she'd be sad when things ended, but Laney is ready

actually, ready for this summer to be over, for the school year to

start, for her bad behavior - Is that what this is? - to end. Nothing

she can't, somehow, reverse has happened, Laney assures herself.

She made a few errors in judgment; luckily she got away with

them. After her rendezvous with Donny tomorrow, she'll simply

stop. Stop with the diversions, no more drinking and drugging.

No more fucking around. She will rededicate herself to being a

good mom and wife - great mom and wife. There is no need to

panic. She hasn't destroyed anything yet.

Tomorrow is the first day of second grade. There will be bake

sales again. Everything is okay: her kids are okay - Remember when

I used to light fireworks? - her husband.

In the fairy-tale there is a knight, a horse, a sunset. In the

fairy-tale the princess holds on from behind, her face nestled

into her knight's shoulder, the smell of him unmarked as is his


An easy clip clopping carries her away from the fortress. Clip,

clop. Clip, clop. Clip, clop. She, the princess, is wearing a billowing

dress, daisies in her hair. She is in white; he is in white, the


Here, in the Garden State, the knight wears Nike t-shirts.

Laney sat beside hers, halter-top, capris. She smelled like Fracas,

he Paco Rabanne. The engine growled, then jerked as Bruce

shifted into drive. He was tan and she was tan. The road stretched

out before them, a smooth even tar and the future simply wasn't

something she worried about, not with a new car lease every

four years.

Bounce, bounce, swoosh.

Laney adjusts the temperature of the bath water with her toes.

Her little girl is fast asleep but her boy, she suspects, her boy who

should be sleeping isn't. He's standing by his bedroom window

watching his father get the ball in every time. Amazing. He can


hear the music his father likes. Dananana, Danananananana. The

boy watches in disbelief. Every time.


The boy turns from the window, glances at the vintage Knicks

poster above his desk: Reed, Monroe, Frazier. On top his desk

is a folder, sharpened pencils, and a small box of crayons. On

the chair a neatly folded t-shirt, khakis, underwear, socks, clean

sneakers. His mother, as usual, has everything organized and


Something isn't right, though. Eli won't be able to explain it,

Laney knows. Not tonight. Not ten years from now. The din of


What he senses, would put money on if someone offered,

is that his mom's crying. No evidence. Just a bouncing ball,

Springsteen, and the muffled sound of a lone firecracker. But

he'd bet, bet his entire allowance she's crying.

Eli climbs into bed, looks at the poster. They traded Ewing,

then Spree. He rolls onto his side, bends his knees, squeezes his

eyelids as tight as he can.

Bounce, bounce, swoop.

Laney wishes her boy could see them, the little white lights

that are out there tonight, sprinkling themselves across the sky.

She wishes, even more, she could show them to him. view abbreviated excerpt only...

Discussion Questions

1) Laney is preoccupied with aging. She is worried about getting old and unattractive. “What's making her feel so ugly?” (p. 20) Why do you think Laney feels “ugly”?

2) “Funny, she thinks, how the appearance of normalcy is secondary to reality.” (p. 37) Authenticity is an issue Laney deals with throughout the novel. Who is the real Laney? What scene is the most truthful representation of who she is?

3) Why, when she knows it's wrong, doesn't Laney just cancel her tryst with Donny? What does Donny represent to her?

4) Laney masturbates on the floor of her daughter's room as the little girl sleeps. Is this a hostile act? If so, to whom? If not, what was Laney looking for? What did she want to feel?

5) Do you think Laney learned anything in rehab? If so, what?

6) What is the message behind the Pinky Tinkerbink story? What is Laney trying to say to her daughter?

7) When Laney finally has an opportunity to confront her father, why does she hold back? What does Laney learn about herself or her father from that meeting? Why do you think Laney steals the dollhouse piece?

8)Why do you think Laney goes off with Cabana Boy?

9) Why do Eli's nervous ticks upset Laney so much? What do they represent to her?

10) What is it about the piano recital that sets Laney off? Why does she go home and fall prey to cocaine?

11) Do you think Laney goes into the bar looking for trouble? Do you think she regrets what happens?

12)“Finally. Finally she is ugly” (p. 188) Why is Laney relieved to feel ugly?

13) Where do you think Laney goes at the end of the novel? Where do you think she is 6 months from the ending? A year? If she leaves does she come back? Does she have a relationship with her kids or does she simply disappear?

14) Do you think Laney loved her children? Do you think Laney loved Bruce? Do you think Laney is capable of love?

15) Would Laney be content in a different environment, in a different marriage to a different spouse, or is her undoing more deliberate than his?

16) What does Laney get out of her affairs? It's not like she's in love with the men she hooks up with or even gets off sexually, so what's in it for her?

17) At one point I was going to title the book, A Single Act of Kindness. The single act, at least in my mind, was Laney leaving her children. If Laney does indeed leave her children is it an act of kindness in her mind? In thinking about this I also don't understand how, after spending the whole of her adult life trying to understand her father's abandonment, she could abandon her own children?

Notes From the Author to the Bookclub

I think the central question in I Smile Back is this: Is saying you're sorry enough? Step 8 in AA is to make amends and I'm a big believer in AA. That said, after you apologize then what? An admission of guilt is critical to the healing process BUT the consequences linger. Laney Brooks, the central character in I Smile Back, is both victim and perpetrator. She isn't easy to sympathize with. I know that. Even so, I think Laney's issues (although extreme) are common. Who doesn't wonder how their familial legacy lingers, influencing the present? Who doesn't fight, in some way, against that legacy, both physically and emotionally in an effort to transcend that which has built up inside -- to find some sort of true inner freedom.

Book Club Recommendations

Member Reviews

Overall rating:
  "I Smile Back"by lesliemich (see profile) 06/12/09

  "I Smile Back"by ezzie36330 (see profile) 05/18/09

I would not recommend this book for clubs who do not wish to discuss graphic content. This book was a good read, but very graphic. I like the way that the author did not just gloss over the dirty truths... (read more)

  "I Smile Back"by awolfe0503 (see profile) 05/14/09

This was a dark and depressing look in to the life of a woman that by all appearances is happy and normal. I liked the book because it was realistic. Not everyone is successful in rehab, not everyone... (read more)

  "A strange tale of drug abuse, sexual misconduct & just plain craziness."by bchamplin (see profile) 04/07/09

WOW! What a mess! I really like to read up & coming authors. You never know what your going to run across before they "make it". However, I wasn't all into this book. I found the main charac... (read more)

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