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Nothing But a Smile (book review)

March 7, 2010

Nothing But a Smile

Steve Amick

Pantheon Books, March 2009

336 pages

After rereading Lauren Willig, I was looking for immersive historical fiction, with a strong sense of place, character and, above all, fun. Nothing But a Smile suited me perfectly. It’s warm, innocently sexy, and really immersive into the World War II home front.

Wink Dutton is discharged from the military, not wounded in battle, but in a dumb accident, that hurts his pride as much as it hurts his body. He comes to Chicago to check in on Sal, the wife of his war buddy, who offers him a room above the struggling photography shop she runs.

And then they get the idea to start taking girlie pinup photos, to sell to troop magazines. Nothing porny- Amick’s descriptions of the “cheesecake” photo shoots of whimsical scenes were delightful. Both funny (whoops, a lifted skirt here! and oops! bazooms!) and also endearingly awkward. And fun, beautifully described cultural history. The scenes of the photo shoots- staging what was sexy but also everyday, making a story out of it– captures a historical moment. The difference between leg paint and precious nylons, for example. Also- a good view into what was sexy: the hint, or the possibility in a story, rather than a big reveal of everything all hanging out. The way I picture it- you saw less in those pinup photos than in the background of a crime scene on CSI. There’s a dignity to that vision of women’s sexuality that I appreciate.  Can you be nostalgic for something that ended before you were born?

Sal and Wink both wrestle with the ethics of what they’re doing. Is it art? Fidelity or a love letter to her husband? Is it immoral or taboo or patriotic or innocent or what? Their doubts and awkwardness ultimately carry a respect for each other, and, I think, a healthy view of sex. And, of course, they’re not insulated from the town’s censure– Sal models in a wig– but what happens when she’s recognized is telling.

It’s both kinds of a romance- between characters, and romanticizing history, even romance, in the best possible way.

Great fun! I want more in this vein. Maybe I’ll go back and reread Playing By Heart.

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