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Private Life

Average Rating 3
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Sort by: Showing all of 6 review with 5 star rating   See All Ratings
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  • Posted May 10, 2010

    more from this reviewer

    This is a subtle first half of the twentieth century epic that shows how far women have come in over a century

    Almost two decades ago in Missouri then eight year old Margaret Mayfield's father committed suicide. Soon after her dad took his life; her brother dies in an accident and her other brother from measles. Their widowed mom informs her three daughters they must find a spouse.

    In 1905, twenty-seven years old Margaret is still an unmarried spinster but she meets astronomer US Navy Captain Andrew Jackson Jefferson and they soon marry. He takes his new wife to California where he works at an observatory. Her first shock about her husband is how he reacts to the death of his mom in the earthquake and three years later to their baby. Over the years as her resentment and ire grow, Margaret realizes her husband suffers from obsessive behavior until by 1942 she looks back in anguish that she subjugated her dreams for his and never received the slightest regard from her spouse while his sister becomes a polished reporter. Still she accepts her lot until he betrays a Japanese- American family that they have been friends of for years claiming they are spies with no supporting evidence and the Feds don't need anything beyond his say so.

    This is a subtle first half of the twentieth century epic that shows how far women have come in over a century. Margaret is superb as she holds the profound story line together yet by WWII regrets what she could have been while admiring her courageous sister-in-law, but she accepts her lot in life until her spouse betrays a neighbor. Jane Smiley writes a powerful yet low keyed brilliant saga of a woman's role up until WWII when the Greatest Generation changes the dynamics.

    Harriet Klausner

    9 out of 10 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted September 29, 2012

    more from this reviewer

    Insightful reflections on human nature

    “Private Life” by Jane Smiley tracks the life of Margaret Mayfield from her youth in Post-Civil War Missouri through her life as Mrs. Andrew Early in California during WWII. Smiley begins with the Rose Wilder Lane quote “In those days all stories ended with the wedding.” Rather than a fairytale “happily-ever-after,” though, Smiley delves into the life of a “good woman” who submits to convention and allows her marriage to define her. Margaret describes herself as the third sister, even though she’s the oldest: “There’s always a beautiful sister and a smart sister, and then there’s a sister that’s not beautiful or smart.” At 27, Margaret is on the verge of becoming a spinster when she consents to marry the odd, but brilliant, Captain Andrew Jackson Jefferson Early. There is no romance between them, which may be a blessing in itself. Margaret’s mother Livinia maintains what Margaret considered to be a practical view of marriage: Romance is always the first act of a tragedy. When Margaret is eight years old, her physician father commits suicide after a freak accident kills Margaret’s thirteen-year old brother and her fifteen-year-old brother dies of the measles. Livinia tells Margaret that death is the most essential part of life. The novel has no chapters, just a prologue and an epilogue, both set in 1942, and five parts beginning in 1883, 1905, 1911, 1928, 1937, respectively. Those hoping for a fast-paced read or compelling action will be disappointed, but those who appreciate well-crafted prose, exquisite character development, and insightful reflections upon human nature are in for a treat. In addition to describing Margaret’s inner self, “private” seems to be a subtle reference to Margaret’s station in life beneath that of her naval husband, Captain Early. She is but a spectator in that relationship, and over the years she watches her husband decline from something that approaches genius into what seems to be near madness. There’s no telling what Margaret might know, understand and remember if she finds the courage to let herself think before it’s too late.

    3 out of 5 people found this review helpful.

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