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The Smart One Reader’s Guide

By Jennifer Close

The Smart One by Jennifer Close


The questions, discussion topics, and suggestions for further reading that follow are intended to enrich your discussion of Jenifer Close’s The Smart One.


Jennifer Close captures the complications and comforts of family life in The Smart One. The story of three adult siblings who find themselves once again ensconced in their parents’ home, it is as witty and shrewd as Close’s bestselling Girls in White Dresses.
A broken engagement, unsatisfying job, and insurmountable debt have left thirty-year-old Claire with little choice but to move in with her parents and try to put her life in order.  She’ll be joining her older sister, Martha, a burned-out nurse who now works at J.Crew. Their younger brother, Max, is a senior in college, living with the beautiful Cleo, until a crisis brings both of them to his family home.  For their mother, Weezy, having her children back in the nest reaffirms her irrepressible tendency to express unconditional love and unsolicited opinions; she’s infuriated that her husband, a college professor, refuses to devote the same attention to their children’s lives.
As the Coffeys struggle with their own failings, real and imagined, and contend with ingrained notions and surprising revelations about one another, The Smart One brings to light the various, often comical ways in which family roles define the way we see ourselves in the world.

Questions and Topics for Discussion

1. What do the descriptions of Claire’s relationships with Doug [pp. 7–10], her friends [p. 5–6], and her boss [p. 11] establish about her? Are her reactions to the broken engagement and her financial situation typical? To what extent is her situation the result of own her choices? 

2. Martha is initially presented through her perceptions and assessments both of herself and of the people with whom she interacts [p. 21–37].  What particular observations undermine or belie Martha’s general sense of self-satisfaction and self-approval?

3. “Why,” the author says about Weezy, “did everyone act like it was so wrong of her to want her children to be happy and healthy and successful and settled?” [p. 47] What role do the notions of a child’s failure, success, and personal happiness play in the way we evaluate ourselves (or others) as parents? 

4. What is the significance of Weezy’s secret meetings with wedding-service providers after Claire’s engagement is called off?  What needs does the admittedly embarrassing activity fulfill for her?

5. Is Will the more realistic parent? In what ways does he embody the traditional attributes of a husband and father? How does the relationship between husband and wife shape their attitudes about the children? Discuss, for example, the import of the author’s statement about Weezy: “Of course she worried about them. That was what mothers did, wasn’t it? Will had the luxury of knowing that she was taking care of the worrying and so he didn’t have to.” [p. 52]

6. “Elizabeth was different from other mothers—Cleo knew that from the time she was about four.” [p. 55] Is Elizabeth a “bad mother”? Are there aspects of her parenting style you find acceptable and even admirable?  How has her approach affected Cleo and her relationships with other people?

7. Why does Claire get involved with Fran? What impact do her memories of high school have on her behavior?  Do Claire and Fran have similar motivations for embarking on an affair? Is their relationship understandable, or does it show a lack of judgment and maturity?


8. In discussing Claire with her therapist, Martha maintains “things come pretty easily for her” [p. 171].  What does this demonstrate about the way Martha chooses to present not only her sister but also herself?  In what ways does Martha exploit and manipulate the personality traits and quirks the Coffeys ascribed to each child when they were growing up?

9. Is it common for families to assign roles to each person (i.e., the smart one, the sensitive one, the irresponsible one)?  Why is it difficult for adults to escape these labels? Which character in the novel do you think the title refers to? 

10. Cleo muses, “[Max’s] whole life, people had been doing things for him, telling him how cute and funny he was . . .” [p. 67]. How has Max’s position as the youngest child—and only son—in the family shaped the way he sees the world? What aspects of his personality help him cope with Cleo’s pregnancy and its repercussions? Is he in some ways better prepared for parenthood than Cleo is?

11. What kind of mother do you think Cleo will be? Will she take after Elizabeth, or will Weezy become her model? Will she and Max stay together?

12. Discuss the concepts of independence and dependency within a family. How do Martha, Claire, and Max reflect or challenge your definitions? How do Cleo and Elizabeth fit into your understanding of the expectations of support and compassion among family members?

13. Weezy notes that there is an “epidemic” of children moving back home with their parents [p. 101]. Do you agree that both generations have accepted and even welcomed this trend? What are the practical, psychological, and cultural implications for both parents and adult children?

14. From Max and Cleo’s life at college, to Martha’s behavior at her jobs, to family interactions at the beach and at various gatherings, the author vividly portrays the small moments of daily life. Discuss the particular images, comic touches, and domestic and familial details that resonate with you and capture universal experiences and feelings.

About this Author

Jennifer Close is the best-selling author of Girls in White Dresses. Born and raised on the North Shore of Chicago, she is a graduate of Boston College and received her MFA in Fiction Writing from the New School in 2005. She worked in New York in magazines for many years and then in Washington, D.C., as a bookseller.

Suggested Reading

Janelle Brown, All We Ever Wanted Was Everything; Jonathan Franzen, Freedom; Joshua Henkin, The World Without You; Eliza Minot, The Brambles; Meg Mitchell Moore, The Arrivals; Sarah Pekkanen, The Opposite of Me; Jane Smiley, A Thousand Acres
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