The New York Times
Private Lifeby Jane Smiley
A riveting new novel from the Pulitzer Prize–winner that traverses the intimate landscape of one woman’s life, from the 1880s to World War II.
Margaret Mayfield is nearly an old maid at twenty-seven in post–Civil War Missouri when she marries Captain Andrew Jackson Jefferson Early. He’s the most famous man their small town has ever
A riveting new novel from the Pulitzer Prize–winner that traverses the intimate landscape of one woman’s life, from the 1880s to World War II.
Margaret Mayfield is nearly an old maid at twenty-seven in post–Civil War Missouri when she marries Captain Andrew Jackson Jefferson Early. He’s the most famous man their small town has ever produced: a naval officer and a brilliant astronomer—a genius who, according to the local paper, has changed the universe. Margaret’s mother calls the match “a piece of luck.”
Margaret is a good girl who has been raised to marry, yet Andrew confounds her expectations from the moment their train leaves for his naval base in faraway California. Soon she comes to understand that his devotion to science leaves precious little room for anything, or anyone, else. When personal tragedies strike and when national crises envelop the country, Margaret stands by her husband. But as World War II approaches, Andrew’s obsessions take a different, darker turn, and Margaret is forced to reconsider the life she has so carefully constructed.
Private Life is a beautiful evocation of a woman’s inner world: of the little girl within the hopeful bride, of the young woman filled with yearning, and of the faithful wife who comes to harbor a dangerous secret. But it is also a heartbreaking portrait of marriage and the mysteries that endure even in lives lived side by side; a wondrously evocative historical panorama; and, above all, a masterly, unforgettable novel from one of our finest storytellers.
The New York Times
The Washington Post
—The Atlantic Monthly
“Extraordinarily powerful . . . In the course of this brilliantly imagined, carefully chiseled story, Smiley introduces a rich cast of characters. Among Margaret’s cohorts is a Japanese midwife who can virtually smell Margaret’s marital misalliance; an irresistible Cossack who says things like ‘Put your clothes on, darling, we’re going for a ride’; a sister-in-law journalist who is married to her work and counts as friends Ezra Pound and Henri Bergson. A gripping half-century of history strides through these pages, too. Lenin makes an appearance, as do Einstein, Thomas Edison and Nikola Tesla. And then there is early 20th-century science in all its startling crudeness, a coming-of-age story of its own. Smiley’s virtuosity should be no surprise to us. She has proven herself in a dozen wildly different books . . . But Private Life is a quantum leap for this author, a book that . . . burrows deep into the psyche and stays. It kept me up all night, long after I’d finished it, remembering the lives of my mother and grandmothers, recalling every novel about women I had ever read, from Anna Karenina to My Antonia. In a fair world, it will get all the readers it deserves. It’s not often that a work as exceptional as this comes along in contemporary American letters.”
—Marie Arana, The Washington Post
“Birth and death—that ancient balance presides over Smiley’s panoramic portrait of Margaret Mayfield. . . . Deemed the least attractive of [her sisters], against all odds Margaret is rescued from spinsterhood by Captain Andrew Early, the reputedly brilliant son of a prominent local family. . . . Andrew is also subject to manias and delusions, and their intensification will provide the undercurrent of the novel’s plot. In 1905, Andrew and Margaret marry and head to San Francisco, where he has a posting at a naval observatory. Great things are in the works. Almost straightaway [however], there is tragedy. . . . But loss is only part of what divides Margaret and Andrew. . . . As time goes on, this troubled scientist has more and more difficulty drawing the line between world events and his own life. Smiley plays these scenes out gradually, finessing the increments that build domestic anxiety to extend and enrich her central concern: a fully fleshed portrait of the conflicted loyalties of a woman raised to be a submissive wife, a constant support to her husband. . . . Smiley understands that personal redemption is usually transacted within the deepest private self, [and] as the years pass, Private Life reflects the pressures of the larger world on the most intimate aspects of personal existence. . . . As World War II breaks out, Smiley lets events infiltrate her narrative even as she keeps Margaret’s marriage squarely in the foreground. Through every scene and revelation, she keeps in mind the moment she’s building toward: the completion of Margaret’s long-deferred self-recognition. What she finally delivers has a Jamesian twist of the unforeseen, but it’s achieved with a sureness of hand that’s all her own.”
—Sven Birkerts, The New York Times Book Review
“Masterly . . . In this precise, compelling depiction of a singular woman, Smiley creates an inner world as expansive as her character’s outer world is constrained.”
—The New Yorker (June 14 & 21, 2010)
“With its quietly accruing power, [Private Life is] the kind of book that puts the lie to those who claim that great novelists produce their best work early and spend the rest of their lives gilding the lily. . . . The bulk of Private Life is devoted to the ways, large and small, that Margaret’s marriage shapes and circumscribes her life. It’s a remarkable portrait not only of Margaret but of her husband . . . Private Life is an unselfconsciously historical novel, in that the backdrops and events—in Missouri and then California—are never obtrusive yet fill every crevice of the story. . . . As in Marilynne Robinson’s luminous novel Gilead, Private Life’s protagonist is slow to act, a victim of self-limitations whose most dramatic events are internal and whose emotional wounds seem largely self-inflated. . . . Smiley has created in Margaret Mayfield an enduring character so faultlessly realized that her failures and self-doubt, her occasional small pleasures, and her moments of painful self-awareness feel inevitable and at times heart-wrenching. She is a woman of her times who scarcely struggles to rise above them—the kind of character who often gets shuffled off, in fiction’s pages, to inhabit a bit part. In the pages of Private Life she is given as full and honest and sympathetic an existence as she—as any of us—deserves.”
—Sarah L. Courteau, Chicago Tribune
“Not all tragic heroes are undone by hubris. The opposite quality can be just as devastating. Consider Margaret Mayfield Early in Jane Smiley’s haunting new novel, Private Life. . . . When she marries a local hero, the pairing has the aura of a small-town Cinderella story. . . . Smiley has proven expert at wedding the epic and the earthy, setting King Lear on a farm, for instance, in A Thousand Acres. In Private Life, she examines Margaret’s journey in the context of a vast, changing, troubled world. The conclusion is that even those who risk nothing cannot shield themselves from disappointment. [Margaret’s] keen mind and generous nature endear her to a colorful circle of friends and acquaintances. And they make her receptive to moments of joy, which Smiley evokes with delicate poignance. Supporting players are similarly vivid. . . . As for Capt. Early, Smiley refuses to make him a simple villain. Her increasingly nuanced portrait reveals a man who suffers as much for his dreams as his wife does for her lack of them. It’s this respect for the dignity of human struggle that makes Private Life at once unsettling and strangely uplifting.”
—Elysa Gardner, USA Today
“A fine portrait. . . . Family relationships [are] depicted with a kind of loving frankness, a relish for their imperfections that acknowledges their capacity to sustain. . . . The narrative also makes room for comedy and minute social observation . . . Smiley unfussily and conscientiously enters a world beyond our experience and humanizes it, inhabiting it herself in order to allow us to follow her. . . . Andrew himself is an extraordinary creation . . . Smiley’s great achievement in a novel characterized by the quiet stillness of its depths is to thicken her narrative and empty it out at the same time. World events come and go, while Margaret’s isolation and her inability to act as participant rather than observer become steadily more pronounced. It is here that we can see the distinctiveness and refinement of Jane Smiley’s brand of realism. . . . What elevates this tale of a blisteringly unhappy marriage into something far more compelling and tragic is Smiley’s willingness to blend acute sympathy with outright absurdity and to juxtapose the relentless rigidity of human nature with the chanciness of the contexts it is required to accommodate. [Private Life] should only enhance Smiley’s reputation as one of the most innovative and accomplished writers currently at work.”
—Alex Clark, The Times Literary Supplement
“A powerful turn-of-the-last-century American novel in both chronology and style. . . . Smiley has tried her hand at historical novels before but, at bottom, she has always been a master chronicler of the climate changes in relationships—I think especially of her great, great novella, The Age of Grief. Here, her compelling story about a long marriage has an Edith Wharton, Henry James feel of sinister delicacy about it. . . . A wistful and beautifully observed novel.”
—Maureen Corrigan, NPR’s “Fresh Air”
“Brilliant . . . Set against the panorama of an America that emerges from the post-Civil War period into a world of discovery and invention. [Margaret Early’s] life is caught up in and buffeted by events as various as the Louisiana Purchase Exposition, the San Francisco earthquake, and the post-Pearl Harbor internment of Japanese immigrants and their children. Culture and politics are woven into the fabric of the story, not just as fascinating background, but as pressure on Margaret’s marriage. . . . A portrait of a woman suffocated by marriage with a man of distorted intellectualism and cold self-absorption. Nothing in this novel is easy or obvious or familiar. No adultery, no abuse, no abandonment. Private Life is a story of immense originality and insight. It is served well by the fascinating era in which it is set, and most of all by Smiley’s wit and erudition.”
—Sandra Scofield, The Philadelphia Inquirer
“The breadth of Jane Smiley’s subject matter has always been astonishing—she’s written novels about farming, horse training, Hollywood and university life, and nonfiction books and essays about child rearing, impulse buying and dressing. In her 13th novel, Private Life, the Pulitzer Prize–winning author of A Thousand Acres takes that breadth and applies it temporally, chronicling a woman’s life from the 1880s to World War II. The result is a novel rich in setting and scope. The novel begins in 1883 in Missouri with Margaret Mayfield, who is considered nearly an old maid at 27. Through creative matchmaking, she’s married off to Captain Andrew Jackson Jefferson Early . . . Smiley’s main theme is the circumscribed life of a married woman at the turn of the century. Margaret’s plight is worsened by her obsessive, intellectual, ravenously egotistical husband . . . Andrew, with his passion for ideas, none of which pan out, emerges as one of Smiley’s strongest characters. . . . As Margaret manages to gain some sliver of freedom, the overwhelming feeling for her and the reader is one of regret and loss associated with a narrowly lived life. When Margaret says, ‘There are so many things that I should have dared before this,’ the reader can only nod her head in agreement.”
—Nina Schuyler, San Francisco Chronicle
“Brilliant . . . Private Life is a powerful, challenging and, ultimately, fierce work of fiction, a masterpiece of a novel that stands with the best of Smiley’s work. It spans more than half a century, from the early 1880s to the attack on Pearl Harbor, revealing—not just in the details of everyday life but even in its style and narrative—the changes in the US during that time. Yet as we move from a world that would have been familiar to Louisa May Alcott—through scenes reminiscent of Booth Tarkington or Theodore Dreiser and into the darker intimacies of the 1940s—it is Margaret's life we follow, a life that is self-limiting and almost entirely unexpressed. All around her, fascinating creatures—her reporter friend, Dora, a shadowy figure named Pete, the enigmatic Kimura family—live out their destinies, but Margaret remains locked in a nightmarish marriage . . . Private Life reminds us that, for many, that holy sacrament was, and continues to be, a matter of solemn duty, where the strongest or most generous of the partners relinquishes all hope of self-realization in order to perpetuate a tired and unrealistic institution.”
—John Burnside, The Guardian (UK)
“Smiley may have been born a century too late. Her best novels fit into the grand 19th-century tradition, with plenty of description, a sweeping view of history, characters from varied social classes, a strong sense of morality and an emphasis on the importance of the inner life. Private Life is one of her best novels. It follows Margaret Mayfield, daughter of a Missouri doctor, from her early childhood in the 1880s up through World War II. . . . It isn’t until she’s 27 that she marries a rich young astronomer with enough psychological problems for the two of them. . . . To a large extent, Private Life is a study of marriage and its drawbacks. In both tone and subject matter it’s easy to hear echoes of Middlemarch . . . Smiley’s sympathies are clearly with Margaret, but she doesn’t turn [her husband] into a pure villain: He’s right as often as he’s wrong, although nobody wants to listen to him. . . . Their lives are touched by history in believable ways: The San Francisco earthquake and fire of 1906 affect their family and friends, and the internment of the Japanese in the 1940s changes their lives even more radically. Smiley’s tone throughout the novel is compassionate, detached, and a little wry, keeping the events of these private lives in perspective without minimizing their importance to the characters themselves.”
—Margaret Quamme, The Columbus Dispatch
“A book whose enormous power sneaks up on you. . . . What gives this painful story of an unhappy marriage its depth is Smiley’s refusal to assign blame. Despite his foolishness and pomposity, Andrew is not a villain. Nor is Margaret blameless. . . . Unlike so many contemporary novels, which start out sure-footed but eventually lose focus, this novel keeps getting better. It’s only May, but I am ready to place Private Life on my list of best books for 2010.”
—Nan Goldberg, Newark Star-Ledger
“A chilling tale, quietly absorbing . . . Though the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair, the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, and the jailing of Japanese-Americans in World War II all figure prominently in Private Life, the title is right for a novel about spouses who grow further apart each year.”
—Craig Seligman, Bloomberg News
“Though touched by big events—the St. Louis World’s Fair, the San Francisco earthquake, World Wars I and II—Smiley’s story is primarily one of inner life. Its protagonist, Margaret, manages to be both exquisitely observant and dreamily self-contained. . . . A great deal does go on, distantly felt by Margaret, while her real interest, like ours, lies in the inner workings of her private life, which, for all its ostensible ordinariness, is rendered extraordinarily by Smiley’s subtle art. Along with the perfectly calibrated impressions and perceptions that so profoundly involve us in Margaret’s character and all that happens to her, Smiley gives us a convincing sense of life in Margaret’s time and place; every detail—the clothes and habits, news and rumors, passing fads and personalities—appears as casually as a natural occurrence. . . . Like The Stone Diaries (and Evan Connell’s Mrs. Bridge and Kate Chopin’s The Awakening, which it also resembles in many ways), Private Life is a story of emerging consciousness—a story of coming of age late in life. Like these others, Smiley’s book might also be seen as a feminist work—but only insofar as feminism is understood as concerned with the basic humanity of women.”
—Ellen Akins, Minneapolis Star-Tribune
“Invites comparisons to Edith Wharton . . . Persuasive . . . Aside from a dissection of a marriage over the course of half a century, Private Life is also a character study of Andrew—a vain, grandiose, although, it seems at first, well-regarded Navy astronomer who in time turns to physics. . . . Margaret, too, is a character study—of a woman who has embraced her culture’s notion of feminine virtue. . . . Duly gathering knitting circles and pursuing charity work, she also swallows any negative thoughts about her husband, whose theories she at least officially supports. Towards the end of the novel her disillusionment is total. . . . This is able storytelling, with a wide cast of ancillary characters who are each well drawn . . . The period details are well chosen and not heavy-handedly stuffed in. As in all good historical novels, history itself perks along in the background, including the two world wars, while the personal—private life—takes center stage. Feminist in the best sense, Private Life examines a certain variety of marriage, a union that contemporary women would flee in a heartbeat but exactly one of a sort that legions of women in times past have endured to the grave.”
—Lionel Shriver, Financial Times
“Smiley tells her story precisely. . . . Private Life has a stunning specificity of detail. . . . Husband and wife are three-dimensional, alive and memorable in the way characters in fiction and people in biographies so rarely are. The secondary characters are portrayed vividly.”
—Betsy Willeford, The Miami Herald
“A brilliant study of a woman whose limited freedoms circumvent the Suffragette movement at the beginning of the 20th century, and predate the second-wave feminism of the 1970s. . . . A romantic [backdrop] of astronomical mysteries and the astonishing scientific discovery of ‘double stars’ which whirl in tandem . . . frames deep family discontents and marital dysfuntions among [Private Life’s] characters, who live like fallen beings on earth in the lonely expanse of rural Missouri. The double stars, which spin uncontrollably on their axes, become a sinister motif as Margaret and Andrew’s marriage progresses through the early 20th century, leaving both spinning in their own adjacent inner worlds. . . . While Margaret’s mother appears at times to resemble Jane Austen’s Mrs. Bennet, Andrew is no Darcy. His cold formality does not hide a passion burning beneath, but an even colder inner core. His astronomy career begins promisingly but wilts, partly through professional jealousies which include, most amusingly, a campaign to expose Albert Einstein as a charlatan. . . . Smiley offers an alternative version of female liberty in her sister-in-law, Dora, an unmarried journalist who travels to the front line . . . Margaret’s late realization of her [own] failure to strike out for the same kind of freedoms is the book’s greatest tragedy.”
—Arifa Akbar, The Independent (UK)
“This tale of the slow realization of monumental error is a variant of the Dorothea and Casaubon story in George Eliot’s Middlemarch. . . . From being merely self-centered, Andrew becomes a monster whose delusions know no bounds. Smiley traces this change with such skill that reading about it becomes ever more gripping . . . The author also follows Middlemarch in evoking a particular place at a particular time. She describes America as it pulled out of the Civil War into the Gilded Age, and then slid through blinding overconfidence into recession and a second all-consuming war. . . . Smiley brilliantly uses the chronological narrative to show how tragedy slowly wells up from seemingly ordinary circumstances unperceived at first but then manifesting itself as a spreading disease. [Private Life] compels attention, not least for its account of an era of American history.”
—Claire Hopley, The Washington Times
“Private Life evokes the marriage between a bright but stifled woman from small-town Missouri and an astronomer whose scientific obsession—itself a fascinating window into American intellectual history—takes on a sinister cast in the years leading up to World War II.”
—Megan O’Grady, Vogue
“I have a friend who reads novels just for the facts. She wants to know how to build an igloo, what food people ate in 17th-century Iceland, and the way an internal-combustion engine works. She’ll love Private Life,’ covering 60 years and two world wars and stuffed with information about earthquakes, astronomy, farming, and plagues. . . . In 1883, Margaret is a young Missouri farm girl who witnesses a hanging; she loses both her brothers; her father commits suicide . . . Against expectations, she marries Captain Andrew Early, an astronomer with a dazzling reputation. . . . Hampered by such a hopeless, hapless husband, Margaret seeks out her fellow Missourian, Dora, a reporter, world traveler, feminist, who becomes an adventurous foil to Margaret . . . To the delight of the reader, Smiley even allows [Margaret] a romance. Her circle widens. . . . ‘You go, girl!’ we cheer when she realizes ‘marriage was relentless and terrifying.’ ‘Yes!’ we shout when she discovers letters revealing Andrew’s mother had handpicked the local spinster as the ‘harmless but useful’ caretaker for her precious son. . . . By the end, the reader has a sense of lives lived, of the slide from one century to the next. However complicated and different this mismatched pair—the husband so loud, the wife so quiet—we appreciate their careful portraits. . . . Margaret earn[s] our hard-won sympathy and our fondness.”
—Mameve Medwed, The Boston Globe
“Smiley’s eye is keen, and the book’s historical pageant is often mesmerizing and often elegantly composed—and yet Private Life leaves you thinking about its smaller events rather than its large ones. . . . A quiet tragedy.
—Moira Macdonald, The Seattle Times
“The story, from childhood to old age, of Margaret Early, nee Mayfield, raised in Missouri in the late 19th century and saved from spinsterhood by a late marriage at 27 to U.S. Navy Capt. Andrew Early. . . . Andrew is actually a fascinating blowhard who takes it upon himself to rebut Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity. It’s one of many well-drawn characters in the book along with Margaret’s lifelong friend Dora, who is everything she is not: bold, rebellious, and worldly. . . . Smiley is a wonderful writer. The way she renders Margaret’s sudden epiphany that her longtime husband is a fool is powerful. And she perfectly captures the giddy freedom of what it would be like for a 19th-century woman to ride a bicycle for the first time, or what bitter winters felt like in the age of fireplaces, and even the sensual pleasure of flipping through a book. These are writerly gems . . . Smiley creates a convincing, nuanced portrait of a woman’s life when women had few options. And Margaret is a sympathetic character.”
—Michael Hill, San Diego Union-Tribune
“An austere sweep of a novel that follows the fortunes of a dysfunctional marriage from the 1880s to the 1940s and has more than a hint of George Eliot’s Middlemarch. . . . Clever, beautifully written.”
—Christina Hardyment, The Times Saturday Review (London)
“Jane Smiley has never been one for the small story. . . . The title of this latest novel may contradict [her] sense of expansiveness, hinting at a more miniature view of the world through the private life of a marriage. But that is, of course, one of the biggest stories to be told. And Smiley tells it against the backdrop of huge world events. . . . Like Little Women, Smiley’s tale focuses on the marriage prospects and successes of three sisters . . . Romances traditionally end when the heroine says, ‘I do.’ Smiley pulls back the curtain to expose what happens after that acceptance. . . . The consequences of a bad marriage may not always be so tragic, but, Smiley seems to be saying, the waste of time, the waste of a life, the regret of never speaking up, of never walking away, are just as terrible a price to pay. Smiley is never hectoring or didactic: indeed, she weaves a truly spellbinding web as gently and as innocently as any unseen spirit might.”
—Lesley McDowell, The Scotsman
“[A] provocative social document that makes us rethink the ways we remember the past. . . . Richly detailed . . . A bloody-minded historical fiction of the sort that only Smiley can write . . . [Private Life] is capable of evoking moments of deep sympathy and tenderness for its heroine. Included in Margaret’s tale are harrowing descriptions of the San Francisco fire and earthquake; the 1918 influenza pandemic and the U. S. internment of Japanese Americans during the Second World War. All these disasters impinge on Margaret, whose private life is the true historical event in Smiley’s narrative. . . . Smiley is a wizard at describing Margaret’s emotional states, her early spunk and the subtle nature of Margaret’s reawakening after the dimming down of her energy and desire when she is married. . . . I read parts of Smiley’s novel to my mother and, afterward, we found ourselves wondering about our dead female relatives. . . . They lived, they sorrowed; maybe now we understand them a little better than before.”
—Susan Swan, The Globe and Mail (Canada)
“Smiley roars [in this] scarifying tale of stifling marriage and traumatizing losses. Bookish, shrewdly observant Margaret Mayfield discomfits most men in turn-of-the-20th-century Missouri, but she needs to get married. . . . The best bookish Margaret can do is Andrew Early, whose checkered intellectual career is about to take him to a naval observatory in California. He’s graceless and self-absorbed, but perhaps it’s enough that he and Margaret share a fascination with ‘the strange effervescence of the impending 20th century.’ It isn’t. During the years 1905 to 1942, we see Margaret increasingly infuriated by the subordination of her life to Andrew’s all-consuming quest to find order in [the] universe . . . Their disparate responses to the death of Andrew’s mother in the 1906 earthquake and of their infant son (the latter among the saddest pages Smiley has ever written) begin Margaret’s alienation. . . . The novel closes with Margaret at last asserting herself, but that hardly makes up for a lifetime of emotions suppressed and chances missed. Rage and bitterness may not be the most comfortable human emotions, but depicting them takes Smiley’s formidable artistry to its highest pitch. Her most ferocious novel since the Pulitzer Prize–winning A Thousand Acres, and every bit as good.”
—Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
“A subtle and thoughtful portrayal of a woman’s inner strength, [Private Life] may especially appeal to readers who have enjoyed Marilynne Robinson’s recent Gilead and Home. . . . In 1905 Missouri, quiet 27-year-old Margaret Mayfield marries Capt. Andrew Jackson Jefferson Early, a naval officer and an astronomer who is considered a genius and a little odd. By the time they make their way by train to their new life in California, the reader understands that Captain Early is actually somewhat crazy in his obsessions. . . Their lives together grow more troubled [and] Smiley reminds us how difficult it was for all but the boldest women to extract themselves from suffocating life situations 100 years ago. While dealing with intimate matters, this novel also has an epic sweep, moving from Missouri in the 1880s to the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, up to the Japanese internment camps of World War II, with the scenes from Margaret’s Missouri childhood reminiscent of Willa Cather.”
—Leslie Patterson, Library Journal
“The Pulitzer Prize–winning author offers a cold-eyed view of the compromises required by marriage while also providing an intimate portrait of life in the Midwest and West during the years 1883-1942. By the time she reaches the age of 27, Margaret Mayfield has known a lot of tragedy in her life. . . . Her strong-minded mother, Lavinia, knows that her daughter’s prospects for marriage are dim and takes every opportunity to encourage Margaret’s friendship with eccentric scientist Andrew Early. . . . As Smiley covers in absorbing detail both private and world events . . . she keeps at the center of the narrative Margaret’s growing realization that she has married a madman and her subsequent attempts to deal with her marriage . . . Smiley casts a gimlet eye on the institution of marriage even as she offers a fascinating glimpse of a distant era.”
—Joanne Wilkinson, Booklist
- Faber and Faber
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Read an Excerpt
Stella, who had been sleeping in her basket in the corner, leapt up barking and then slipped out the bedroom door. Margaret heard her race down the stairs. It was early; fog still pressed against the two bedroom windows.
Margaret sat up, but then she lay back on her pillow, dejected—she must have missed a telegram, and now her husband, Andrew, had returned. She woke up a bit more and listened for the opening of the front door. But, no, there hadn’t been a telegram—she remembered that she’d looked for one. Had she not locked the front door? She stilled her breathing and listened. With the war on, all sorts of characters crammed Vallejo these days. Suddenly a little frightened, she slid out of bed and stealthily pulled on her robe, then opened the door of her room a bit wider and crept out far enough to peer over the banister. There was the top of a head, dark, not Andrew’s, and by the dull light of the hall windows, a houndstooth jacket. A figure bent over to pet Stella, and Stella wagged her tail. This was reassuring. Margaret took a deep breath. Now the figure stood up, looked up, and smiled. He said, Put your clothes on, darling, we’re going for a ride.
She was speechless with pleasure at seeing Pete, though he seemed to have walked right in—did that mean she had left the door unlocked, because how would he get a key? But getting ready took her no time, she made sure of that. She only brushed out her hair and redid her bun so that some of the gray was hidden, then got out her best blue suit with the white piqué collar and her last pair of hose and her nicest shoes. She put on the black straw hat with a half-veil, and she looked neat, she thought, though no better than that—at her age, you could not hope to look pretty, and she had never been beautiful. When she reached the bottom of the stairs, Pete smiled and kissed her on the cheek. She confined Stella in the kitchen and made sure the dog door to the backyard was unlocked. Then he led her to his car, which she hadn’t seen, a Buick, prosperous gray and very clean. She said, Where are we going?
Somewhere you’ve been before. But that was all he would tell her.
Margaret had heard nothing from Pete in four months, not since their last agitated phone call two days after Pearl Harbor. Before that, she had seen him every couple of weeks. In the interim, either he had gotten old, or she had forgotten how old he was, because now, as they drove and she glanced at him, she saw that, yes, his hair was dark (that had never been natural), but his face was more wrinkled than hers, and spotted here and there. His teeth were yellow and a little crooked. It crossed her mind that maybe Cossacks weren’t meant to live this long. Then she noticed her own hands, with their wrinkles and spots, and wondered what he must think of her. She would be sixty-four this year, and he would be—well, she didn’t know for sure. But she adored him anyway, with a feeling that defied these meditations on the passage of time (did she adore him, or simply admire him, or how else would she describe her feelings was a question she often pondered). She looked at him again—square in the jaw, hawkish in the nose, kind, mysterious, not like any other man she had known. He didn’t ask her about Andrew, and she didn’t tell him that Andrew had gone to Washington or ask him where he himself had been all these months.
War again meant Vallejo was bursting, cars and trucks backed up and honking everywhere. When they got out of town—onto the 37, around the north shore of the bay—traffic was still slow, but the sun came out and the car warmed up. They made idle conversation—How was she feeling? When did he get the Buick? The weather had been sunny lately, hadn’t it?—but she understood that important topics were to wait until the purpose of their trip was revealed. And the drive was especially pleasant because she had not been out of town, and hardly out of the house, since the attack. Everywhere, the grass was thick and green from the winter rains, and the air was extra bright because of the way that the sunlight shot through and was reflected off fluttering veils of fog. When they turned south, toward the city, the mountains seemed to almost impinge on the highway, they were so black and forbidding, but the waters of the bay seemed to sparkle, and then the fog receded, and they were on the Golden Gate Bridge. The sun shone on it; the cables swept upward to two peaks, and the road rose and curved between them. In the middle of the bridge, the waters of the Pacific spread away in two dazzling directions, deep dark blue, but ablaze with light. And then they were over, and the verges of the highway were green again until well into the city. Pete turned south on Van Ness and kept going. Houses and warehouses gave way to fields and marshes, and then houses and warehouses resumed. When he turned in at the entrance to Tanforan, she was pleased for a moment, and then she remembered that Tanforan was no longer a racetrack but a relocation center. It dawned on her. She said, Pete! You found them! She reached across the seat and took Pete’s hand. He gave hers a squeeze.
In that moment, the racetrack vanished before her eyes. The orderly place it had been once, with horses passing here and there, and people walking purposefully or filling buckets or rolling bandages or raking walkways, gave way to high fences with guards outside them (armed), and milling groups of people inside them, not orderly or purposeful, but a melee—too many people, no horses, everything and everyone in a state of restlessness.
They were allowed through the entrance and directed to park to the left, in what was apparently a small visitors’ section. This, too, was fenced off. Pete came around and opened her door. She said, I’m so glad you brought me here.
They asked for you.
Have you been coming here?
I found them last week. This is my third visit. Since I’m not a family member, it might have to be my last. I know one guy—one guy only—and he’s not in the army, and the army runs things here.
He took her elbow. In his other hand, he carried a bag, but she couldn’t tell what was in it.
The stalls had become makeshift rooms. All the doors were open, because the stalls had no other windows—if a door were closed, there would be no air, except, perhaps, through the cracks in the plank walls. She couldn’t help staring as she went by (smiling, of course, in case anyone looked at her). The walls in the stalls had been whitewashed, but badly—nothing had been done underneath the whitewash to repair cracks or dents where the walls had been kicked—no doubt the stalls hadn’t even been scrubbed down. But every stall was full—hanging clothes, suitcases, boxes, people, chairs, beds, little tables. They walked down one aisle, came to a cross-aisle, turned left, walked three more aisles, turned right at “Barn H.” People looked at them as they passed, voices dropping, or falling silent altogether. Two children, little boys, shouted Hi! Hello! Howdy! in unison, and then went into a fit of giggles. She smiled at them, sorry she had nothing for them. Left again. Pete paused, looked around. Now they were at the far end of Barn G. He said, I thought they were here, and stepped back and looked up. Then he stepped forward and peeked over the half-door. Behind him, she peeked, too. There, on the back wall, was a painting of Mr. Kimura’s that she recognized, a pair of finches, one perched on a railing and the other below, perched on the rim of a small bucket, drinking from it. The stall was neat, or as neat as it could be, but, like the others, it was full of things. The Kimuras had never lived grandly, and over the years the neighborhood in Vallejo where they had their shop had sometimes been quite wild, but the sight of the painting hanging here suddenly struck her in a way that the whole scene had not yet. She gave a little gasp and said, This is unbearable!
At least they have a whole one to themselves. Some families are crammed in two to a stall.
You lived in a stall.
As a lark. Or if I wanted to sleep later than four in the morning.
She felt the rebuke.
But neither Naoko Kimura nor her mother, Kiku, appeared. The people in the two neighboring stalls smiled but didn’t speak. Pete opened the stall door and set the bag inside.
I don’t like this.
Because, when I was here two days ago, Kiku was quite ill. If she’s up and walking around by now, I would be amazed.
Leaving her to assimilate this alarming news, he walked up the row three stalls and fell into conversation with a man who was standing there. He came back in a hurry.
We have to go to the infirmary, which is next to Barn V. That’s across the compound. He says she went over there yesterday morning. They carried her on a stretcher.
But, Pete, what has been happening? Where have they been? Where have you been?
They’ve been in jail, but not in San Francisco. That was the thing that threw me for weeks. They were in San Francisco for a couple of nights, then they were sent to San Mateo, and then to Santa Cruz County. That’s where they were until they were released and sent here. I couldn’t have seen them there, even if I’d found them, since I’m not kin, but when I heard about this place, I got in touch with my friend and persuaded him to keep a lookout for them.
When did they get here?
About ten days ago.
Oh, Pete! This place!
It is one step better than jail. But Kiku got sick in jail, and she’s only gotten worse here. He sighed. Now they were at Barn S, then T. She could see the training track, dusty and unused, with the practice starting gate sitting in the middle of the sand. They found the infirmary.
Pete opened the door and they peeked in. What they saw was not encouraging—a large, drafty space with a cocrete floor and cracked and partly boarded-over windows, in which fifteen or twenty beds had been hastily arranged at one end along with some cabinets. Most of the beds were full, and around most of them milled what looked like worried relatives, in jackets and sweaters (Tanforan was always chilly, given that it was in San Bruno), and nurses in white dresses, also wearing jackets. Two men who might have been doctors were talking together next to one of the beds.
Margaret peered at everyone, and finally recognized Naoko, whose hair had become truly gray. She was wearing a coat, sitting beside one of the beds, and leaning toward the patient, who must have been Kiku Kimura, who was heaped with covers against the chill. Naoko looked up and saw them, then rose and came toward them. Pete followed Margaret into the huge room. She felt her hat slip, and reached up to pin it, sorry now that she had worn such a ridiculous item, sorry that she had gazed into the mirror and indulged her vanity.
Naoko was full of smiles, but she looked drawn and anxious. She took each of their hands and thanked them for coming as if they had done her a great favor. She led them to the bed.
Margaret would not have recognized Mrs. Kimura. She lay flat on her back with her chin tilted upward and her mouth open. She did not have her teeth in, so her mouth looked sunken and pitiful. Her hair was smoothed back away from her forehead, and her eyes were closed. The covers were up to her chin, but one thin hand poked out to the side, and Naoko took it as soon as they got to the bed. It made Margaret shiver with cold just to look at her—she couldn’t imagine that Kiku had enough body heat to keep herself warm even under such a pile. When she leaned down to say hello, she could hear that Mrs. Kimura’s breath was labored. Pneumonia.
Naoko invited her to sit in the chair and perched herself on the edge of the bed. Pete stood nearby. Naoko took her mother’s hand again. She said, She told me herself, when we were down in Santa Cruz and she got a cough there with a fever, that she would get pneumonia from it, and she would die, but that was a month ago. By the time we got here, I thought she would prove herself wrong, but the second night, she coughed all night, sitting up and disturbing our neighbors. There was nothing I could do for her. She glanced over at the doctors. They don’t have anything for us. She smoothed her mother’s forehead. If she were me and I were her, I know there would be some herbs she would gather or a tea she would make. Oh dear. I . . . The doctors were now going from bed to bed, but they didn’t approach Mrs. Kimura.
Can they make her more comfortable at least? said Pete.
Naoko shook her head and said again, They have nothing.
Margaret looked around. At the end of the room opposite to the beds were tables and boxes. She saw that the “infirmary” was also being used as a storage shed. I was wondering so about you. I went to your apartment in San Francisco. It must have been the morning after you left. I can’t imagine what you’ve been through.
Naoko lifted her chin and closed her eyes. The interrogations were the worst. Where were our notes on plans for sabotage? Was it my mother, in her travels, who carried messages between various saboteurs? Were we the ones who planted the tomato field that pointed like an arrow at the airfield, or did the farmer himself think of that? We had no idea what they were talking about, but they posed the questions so that they were impossible to answer. How was Lester receiving his information that he was then sending to Joe? Through whom was Lester communicating his information to Joe? Had the Japanese military been in contact with Joe before he went to Japan? Had I ever met Mr. Masaoko? Was my mother the go-between? Was I the go-between? Whose idea was it for Joe to move to Japan and enlist in the army there? My mother was so nervous with these interrogations that it made her sick, and then they asked if she was pretending to be ill so that she could get to a hospital and communicate with her contacts! All of this she said in a quiet voice with lowered eyes. Pete kept looking at her, and tears started running down Margaret’s cheeks. And then they came to us one day and said that all the Japs were going to camps and they were finished with us, so they sent us here. They didn’t charge us with anything, but they said they retained the account books I was doing for my clients in Japantown, just in case there were coded messages in them. So I am still under suspicion. It was only in that “retained” that Margaret sensed the old, independent Naoko she had known now for thirty-some years.
Pete said, What about Lester?
Naoko raised her hand, but gently, so as to not shake the bed. They still have him. He’s charged with illegal gambling. We knew he was doing that. My mother tried to talk him out of that more than once, but what else did he have in his life? The man he worked for was named Rossi, Luca Rossi, and they haven’t charged him with anything. He just went out and found himself some other runners. He told Lester, You Japs are going to lose all you got anyway, so you’re not so good for business anymore.
Pete looked unsurprised.
Mrs. Kimura gave a strangled gasp, and her eyes fluttered but didn’t open. Margaret knew that it was Andrew, her own husband, who had killed her, that Pete knew it, too, and that if Pete knew it Naoko knew it. She said, I am so sorry.
Mrs. Kimura began to cough, weakly, and Naoko helped her sit up a little more. After the coughing subsided, she gave some harsh cries, and then her eyes opened. Her gaze fell on Pete, and then on Margaret. With great and visible effort she assembled her dignity, and finally she smiled. She whispered, You come.
I would have come much sooner if I’d known where you were.
We were in jail. Then, after a long pause, I didn’t know. Margaret thought she must mean that she didn’t know why.
You shouldn’t have been.
Mrs. Kimura said, Lester . . . But her voice died. Margaret exchanged a glance with Pete, then she said, I’m sure Lester had nothing to do with it. Lester is a good man. He is. It was— But Pete’s hand clamped down on her shoulder, forbidding her confession.
The doctors still did not come near. Margaret said to Naoko, Are you with her all day?
I don’t mind. But I can’t keep warm in here. I go back to my place and warm up and then come here.
If they have nothing for her, then . . .
But she didn’t go on. In fact, Margaret doubted whether Mrs. Kimura could survive being carried anywhere on the stretcher. She rubbed her hands together. When they were warm, and Naoko had gotten up to straighten her mother’s covers, she took Mrs. Kimura’s hand. It was small, thin, and cold. She tried to hold it as gently as she could and to impart a little warmth to it. After what seemed like a long time, she felt the dying woman squeeze her hand, just a bit. Then Mrs. Kimura gasped again and closed her eyes. Pete leaned down and kissed her gently, once on each cheek, his lips just brushing the skin, and then it was time to go. Naoko accompanied them to the door of the infirmary. Pete said, I brought you the things you asked for. I don’t know if I can come back.
THEY walked for a minute or two in silence. That was my barn, over there. Barn O. I enjoyed those days.
This is a terrible thing to do.
Yes, says the American in me.
What does the Russian in you say?
I hope they don’t get shot.
What about you?
I won’t get shot.
I don’t know how to think about any of it, frankly, not any of it. If only the Japanese hadn’t attacked Pearl Harbor! What do they want? What were they thinking?
Darling, they were thinking, Who do those Russians think they are? Why do you find those English fellows everywhere you turn? What makes the French act so superior? And look at the Americans! Such a bunch of primitives! A pack of apes in trousers, telling us what to do! That is what they were thinking.
They got to the car. One of the guards was staring at them. Pete smiled and waved at him. The man kept his weapon down. Pete unlocked and opened her door, then went around and got in the driver’s side. It was now quite chilly, and they didn’t open the windows. As he pressed the starter, she said, I put all my pictures away, I couldn’t stand them anymore. I used to love them so, but now . . .
They backed out of their spot and turned down the line of cars. Darling, there are whole categories of pictures that you never even looked at. Do you remember any of the scowling samurai we saw? With their teeth bared and their eyebrows lowered?
Those are traditional Japanese pictures, too.
I didn’t like those.
They drove out of the gate, waving innocently at the two guards in their little cabin, and then they made their way to Camino Real, and turned north. Pete said, What is the lesson to be learned?
Margaret flared up. It was Andrew—
But Pete stopped her again. I don’t blame Andrew.
Pete raised her hand to his lips. It was clear he wouldn’t talk about that.
She felt terribly cold inside her neat suit and her heavy tweed coat. Her hat was still on her head. She unpinned it and set it on the back seat, then shoved her hands in her pockets, but there was no way to get warm. She did not even shiver. Pressed down by her heavy blankets, Kiku Kimura would be too weak to shiver, Margaret thought.
They drove on in silence, this time crossing to the East Bay and passing Berkeley and Oakland, where they were in the sunlight. San Francisco, so beautiful in the morning, was now gray and invisible. They sat in the line of cars, waiting for the ferry at Benicia. Have I told you that I’m moving to Vancouver?
Pete, you’ve hardly told me anything. But Vancouver! Have you been interrogated, too? Her hand flew to her mouth, then she looked around, but no one, either on the wharf or in the other cars, was looking at them.
Pete laughed his old laugh, the easy, brave laugh that she found so irresistible now, the very laugh she had once distrusted. As he drove onto the ferry, he said, Not yet, but sometimes I do have the sense I’m being watched or followed, though when I look around I never see an extraordinarily tall, mustachioed man. No, darling, it’s much simpler than that. I’m busted again.
The tall, mustachioed man would be Andrew.
She tried to adopt a bit of Pete’s teasing tone, but she was alarmed. You always said armaments were a sure thing!
Not sure enough. Some innovations tempted me. I should have stuck to mere bullets. I don’t know what I should have stuck to, perhaps.
But I’ve found a position in Vancouver.
Now the ferry engine rumbled, and then they backed away from the wharf. The car shivered around them.
As a butler. It might be nice, just keeping order. I think I’ll enjoy it.
Do you remember my friend Bibikova, from St. Petersburg? She married a man named Yerchikovsky. It’s their grandson I’ll work for. I’ll be an old family retainer. Vassily, they think I am.
He told her this as if she wouldn’t care, as if nothing about it was of more than idle interest to her. The noise of the engine swelled again, and then the ferry docked with a bump, and they drove off it.
It was not quite three when they got to her house. As soon as they opened the door, she saw the telegram on the floor, where it had landed when the delivery boy pushed it through the slot. She picked it up. Stella was barking in the backyard.
Pete took one of her hands. Let’s have a look at the pictures. I would like to see the ones Sei did for you. He meant Mr. Kimura. She took off her hat and set it on the hall table. The pictures were in the closet. She got them out, then went into the kitchen and turned on the gas under the kettle.
When she came back, Pete was standing in front of the rabbit. The animal looked nearly vaporous today, a rabbit made of mist crouched down beside stalks of luminous green bamboo. The bamboo reminded her more vividly of Mr. Kimura than the rabbit did—she remembered the exact way that his fingers held the brush and seemed to press the leaves of the bamboo out of it, one by one. That was decades ago now. Mr. Kimura had been dead for two years. They were all so old. Pete set aside the rabbit, and there were the coots. The rabbit was a sketch that Mr. Kimura had given her, but the coots she had commissioned. He had painted it on the north end of the island, not far from where they got on the 37 that very morning, though she hadn’t been there in years. Now she gazed at the curve of the far edge of the pond against the higher curve of the hillside. Far to the left, a solitary chick swam so fast that he made ripples. To the right, the other chicks clustered together, picking bits of things off the surface of the water. Their lives had been so brief that they never even lost their red heads, but Mr. Kimura had caught their friskiness perfectly. Then she could hardly see the painting for the tears in her eyes. Pete, don’t go away!
He put his arm around her, squeezed hard. He knew, of course, that she adored him, or admired him, or whatever it was. He was one of those sorts of men that women were wiser to stay away from, men who took an interest in women, and observed them, and knew what they were thinking.
Darling, I should have been a different person. But I’m not.
And Margaret felt herself almost say, Me, too. But she didn’t know how to say it, because she hardly knew, even as old as she was, what person she had been.
The teakettle was whistling in the kitchen, but they wouldn’t be drinking any tea. Pete, staring at the coots, leaned forward with an intent look on his face, and the whistle of the kettle rose in pitch, as if in desperation. She said, You take it. I want you to take it.
He stood straight up and looked at her, refusal written on his face, but then he relented. His smile came on slowly, and he kissed her on the forehead. She stepped forward, took the picture, and placed it in his hands. It wasn’t terribly large, though it had always seemed to be. She said, The teakettle is going to burn up.
While she was in the kitchen, Stella entered through the dog door, her tail wagging, but Margaret went out without greeting her, and closed her in the kitchen. In the hall, Pete had his hat on, the picture under his arm. She walked him the step or two to the door and opened it. As he went out onto the porch, he pressed her hand.
Thank you, he said, then again, thank you.
She stood on her porch and watched him walk to his car, get in, and, with a wave, drive away.
Meet the Author
Jane Smiley is the author of numerous novels, including A Thousand Acres, which was awarded the Pulitzer Prize, as well as four works of nonfiction. In 2001 she was inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Letters. She received the PEN USA Lifetime Achievement Award for Literature in 2006. She lives in Northern California.
- Northern California
- Date of Birth:
- September 26, 1949
- Place of Birth:
- Los Angeles, California
- B.A. in English, Vassar College, 1971; M.A., Iowa University, 1975; M.F.A, 1976; Ph.D., 1978
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
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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
“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.