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Guest Review: Jenny Offill on "Innocents and Others"

Amazon Book Review: Innocents and OthersJoining the chorus of praise for Dana Spiotta's brainy but warm novel, Innnocents and Others (available March 8) is Jenny Offill, creator of the also-much-praised Dept. of Speculation.

"Thousands of short stories and novels have been made into movies," Don Delillo said once. "I just try to reverse the process."

But what would such a hybrid look like? Is it possible to combine the sweeping vistas of an epic film with the minute psychological detail of a realist novel? Yes, it turns out. In her brilliantly cinematic new novel, Innocents and Others, Dana Spiotta shows us exactly how it is done.

On the surface, it is the story of two female filmmakers, long-time friends who share memories and a sense of ambition, but end up with very different careers. Meadow Mori makes complex, emotionally disturbing documentaries, many of which blur the line between her subjects' active participation and their unwitting coercion. She lives the life of an experimental artist, always pushing herself to the edges of what she knows and sometimes further. Her childhood friend, Carrie Wexler, takes a less radical, more commercial route. Over the years, their friendship is strained by their aesthetic differences and they start to drift apart.

But this is only one piece of a much larger story Spiotta is telling about love and loneliness and the search for solace and meaning in an increasingly fragmented world. She perfectly illuminates the cultural and technological obsessions of the era, bringing to the surface an uncanny mix of free-floating dread and creeping alienation that feels very modern.

Jenny-OffillThe novel also moves out beyond the lives of Meadow and Carrie and lets us into stories of two other women who live far from their privileged worlds. Meadow makes a film about Jelly, a telephone con artist who convinces Hollywood men to give her not money, but a sort of disembodied love. Later, Meadow talks Carrie into collaborating with her to make a film about another lost soul, Sarah Mills, who has been imprisoned because of a terrible crime she confessed to in her youth. There is a mystery and radiance to these crisscrossing storylines that deepens and complicates all that has come before.

Neither film projects turns out as planned, but the excitement of these sections is that we get to experience the same roller coaster of emotions that the filmmakers and their audiences do as we watch the process from idea to execution. Spiotta ingeniously uses a mix of transcripts, texts, blog posts and interviews to make Meadow and Carrie's struggle to make good art and ultimately to live good lives, thrillingly complicated and real.

I came away from this bold and generous novel thinking a great deal about innocence and guilt and those small moments of redemption that allow us to live with our miscalculations and mistakes.

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