Private Life

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Overview

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 ...

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Private Life

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Overview

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.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“Smiley’s best novel yet . . . [a] heartbreaking, bitter, and gorgeous story of a woman’s life stunted by marriage . . . Nothing is confined about this ambitious novel itself, however. Smiley makes dazzling and meticulous use of her historical scope; the Louisiana Purchase Exposition, the San Francisco earthquake, the World Wars, the influenza epidemic, the Japanese internment, the harnessing of electricity, the evolution of the automobile and the movies, Hearst and Einstein—all are gradually incorporated into her plot and themes. Even more admirable is her thoroughly convincing rendition of intimate details from the perspective of another era—the feeling of riding a bicycle when it was a new sensation, the subtle yet powerful machinations of a mother and future mother-in-law in arranging a marriage, the commonplace expectation of children’s deaths.”
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

Sven Birkerts
Private Life reflects the pressures of the larger world on the most intimate aspects of personal existence. Andrew's delusions intensify, and Dora and Pete become Margaret's most important emissaries from the outside. As World War II breaks out, there are more wrenching developments. Smiley lets these events infiltrate her narrative even as she keeps Margaret's sad 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.
—The New York Times
Marie Arana
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.
—The Washington Post
Publishers Weekly
The Pulitzer Prize–winning author of A Thousand Acres delivers a slow-moving historical antiromance in her bleak 13th novel. In the early 1880s, Margaret Mayfield is rescued from old maid status by Andrew Jackson Jefferson Early, an astronomer whose questionable discoveries have taken him from the scientific elite to a position as a glorified timekeeper at a remote California naval base. Margaret’s world is made ever smaller as the novel progresses, with no children to distract her and Andrew more excited by his telescope than his wife. Isolation and boredom being two dominant themes, the book is a slow burn, punctuated by detours into the larger world: the Wobblies, the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, and both world wars. The old-fashioned language can be off-putting, though it does make the reader feel like a reluctant second wife to Andrew as his failed scientific theories are revealed in tedious detail and the gruesome monotony of marriage is portrayed in a repellant but fascinating fashion. Thus, when Margaret finally realizes her marriage is “relentless, and terrifying,” it feels wonderfully satisfying, but the proceeding 100 pages offer a trickle of disappointment and a slackening of suspense that saps hard-earned goodwill. (May)
Library Journal
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. This is a conclusion that Margaret herself is slow to draw, even as their lives together grow more troubled. Smiley (Ten Days in the Hills) 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. VERDICT Not a highly dramatic page-turner but rather a subtle and thoughtful portrayal of a quiet woman's inner strength, this may especially appeal to readers who have enjoyed Marilynne Robinson's recent Gilead and Home. [See Prepub Alert, LJ 1/09.]—Leslie Patterson, Brown Univ. Lib., Providence, RI
Kirkus Reviews
Smiley roars back from the disappointing Ten Days in the Hills (2007) with a 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. Her father committed suicide when she was eight, shortly after one of her brothers was killed in a freak accident and the other died from measles. Widowed Lavinia Mayfield makes it clear to her three daughters that decent marriages are their only hope for economic security, and 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 twentieth 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 a universe that she knows all too well "makes no sense." Their disparate responses to the death of Andrew's mother in the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and of their infant son in 1909 (the latter among the saddest pages Smiley has ever written) begin Margaret's alienation. It's compounded over decades by seeing in her sister-in-law Dora's journalism career an example of the independent, fulfilled existence Margaret might have achieved if she'd had the courage-and, not at all incidentally, the money. A shady Russian refugee gives Margaret a few moments of happiness, but nothing to make up for Andrew's final betrayal during World War II-denouncing a Japanese-American family she'sfond of as spies. 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 (1991) and every bit as good. First printing of 100,000
The Barnes & Noble Review

In her hefty meditation on literary fiction, Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Novel, Jane Smiley asserts, "If I have to pick a single institution that the novel has changed, and whose changes have in turn fundamentally changed the way people live, I would pick marriage." Citing as evidence several 19th-century masterpieces that feature the ever-fertile themes of unhappy marriages and "the morality of personal relationships"-- including Middlemarch, Anna Karenina, Jane Eyre, and Madame Bovary -- she adds that "by enlisting readers in lengthy dramas of incompatibility, novelists subtly promoted the idea that bad marriages were not simply facts of life and fate."

Smiley’s thirteenth book of fiction, Private Life, is a "lengthy drama of incompatibility" that not-so-subtly promotes the idea that marriage is often a raw deal for women, rendering self-definition challenging, if not impossible. Spanning nearly 60 years, from 1883 through 1942, it is a portrait of the sort of conjugal misery that results not when you’ve tied the knot with an abusive drunkard or a philandering Lothario, but when you realize you’ve hitched yourself to the wrong star -- in this case, an eccentric astronomer who flames out early by spinning off into a galaxy of wacko ideas. By living her life as if she were a mere spectator rather than an active participant, Smiley’s passive, emotionally paralyzed protagonist, Margaret, is doomed to revolve unhappily in her husband’s orbit.

Private Life could hardly be more different from Smiley’s last novel, Ten Days in the Hills, a raunchy orgy of talk and sex set in the Hollywood Hills, based loosely on Boccaccio’s Decameron. If Ten Days features passionate political and private engagement and a profligacy that leaves nothing unexpressed, Private Life is all about detachment, repression, and frustration. It’s a dreary read -- but there’s still much of interest here.

Not surprisingly, this is by no means the first time that thrice-divorced Smiley has focused on a troubled marriage or voiced doubts about the institution as a whole. In her beautifully nuanced early novellas, The Age of Grief, Ordinary Love, and Good Will -- still, along with her Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, A Thousand Acres, my favorites among her books -- she explored the vagaries and complexity of marital love and family life. Although featuring contemporary settings, the novellas share with Private Life the theme that matrimony is essentially a private affair, unknowable from the outside (and often puzzling enough from the inside, as well). But Private Life makes the further case that how one conducts oneself in even this most intimate and private of relationships can have significant moral consequences in the public domain.

Margaret’s life is a tale of the repercussions of early loss never fully processed: before she was five, she witnessed a public hanging -- a spectacle so upsetting she repressed it, contributing to her lifelong emotional ambivalence. By the time she was eight, she’d lost both brothers and her father, after which her plucky mother returned with her three young daughters to their grandfather’s Missouri farm.

There’s something about bookish Margaret that puts off potential suitors. Already considered an old maid at 27, she feels herself propelled into wedlock with an odd, awkward scientist, Captain Andrew Jackson Jefferson Early, "as if accumulating experiences were precipitating her toward an already decided future." Her 38-year-old husband, brainy but "not beloved," has recently left the University of Chicago under a cloud. The newlyweds move out west to a naval shipyard off the northern California coast, where Captain Early’s job is a glorified time-keeper. During their long, "relentless" and childless union, he obsessively writes and self-publishes book after ridiculed book debunking Einstein and elaborating his own eccentric (and tedious!) theories of the universe. Occasionally, his investigations take a more practical and alarmist bent -- correctly predicting the 1918 influenza epidemic, and falsely implicating Margaret’s Japanese friends in a spy ring after Pearl Harbor, with terrible consequences. Enlisted as his involuntary typist and chauffeur, Margaret bitterly comes to see Andrew as a fool.

Unfortunately, the most intriguing characters in Private Life don’t hang around for long. Andrew’s shrewd mother, "an invigorating presence," is dispatched disappointingly early. Smiley channels all the excitement and courage missing from Margaret’s life into an unconventional sister-in-law who, as a globetrotting journalist, makes cameo appearances that underscore Margaret’s placidity.

Smiley’s novels differ from her early novellas not just in length, but in historical scope. In her chapter on "The Novel and History" in Thirteen Ways, Smiley writes, "Touches of history, biography, essay and polemic are marks of the realistic novel, the ways in which the novelist introduces gravity into his story." Indeed, a quick survey of Smiley’s novels shows that most are anchored in the moral issues of a specific time and place. In The All-True Travels and Adventures of Lidie Newton, Smiley’s answer to Huckleberry Finn, she presents a touching portrait of marital love against the backdrop of mid-19th-century pioneers crusading against slavery in divided Missouri. A Thousand Acres, Smiley’s homage to King Lear, addresses the plight of farmers in 1980 Iowa. The current war in Iraq is a central concern of Ten Days in the Hills.

Private Life encompasses a period of vast social change and touches obliquely on an almost ridiculous number of historical events: strains between former Union and Rebel sympathizers in post-Civil War Missouri; the Louisiana Purchase Exposition in St. Louis; the San Francisco earthquake and fire of 1906; World War I; the influenza epidemic of 1918; Pearl Harbor; the internment of Japanese-Americans; and the outbreak of WWII. The historical backdrops of Smiley’s earlier novels have felt integral to her themes, but here, only the internment of Japanese-Americans is intricately connected to Margaret’s private tragedy. The other public cataclysms scroll by like crudely painted sets behind the play Margaret feels her life to be. The result is not just a protagonist cut off from her own life -- as Smiley intended -- but a narrative whose relationship with its readers feels similarly unfulfilling.

--Heller McAlpin

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781400040605
  • Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 5/4/2010
  • Pages: 336
  • Product dimensions: 9.56 (w) x 6.58 (h) x 1.27 (d)

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.

Biography

Jane smiley is the author of many novels, including A Thousand Acres, which won the Pulitzer Prize, and Horse Heaven. She lives in Northern California. In 2001, she was inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Letters.

Author biography courtesy of Random House, Inc.

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    1. Hometown:
      Northern California
    1. Date of Birth:
      September 26, 1949
    2. Place of Birth:
      Los Angeles, California
    1. Education:
      B.A. in English, Vassar College, 1971; M.A., Iowa University, 1975; M.F.A, 1976; Ph.D., 1978

Read an Excerpt

PROLOGUE

1942

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.

Why not?

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?

Naoko nodded.

All night?

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.

Naoko nodded.

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?

Yes, but—

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.

But he—

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.

As what?

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.

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Interviews & Essays

A Conversation with Jane Smiley author of Private Life
Q: Some of the characters in Private Life are based in part on members of your own family-your main character Margaret Mayfield on your great aunt, Frances See and Andrew Early on her infamous scientist husband Thomas Jefferson Jackson See, a naval astronomer whose increasingly implausible theories made him an outcast in the scientific community. Did you ever meet them?
A: I didn't know my aunt at all, or her husband. She died when I was about two or three. She was my grandfather's much older sister-he was the youngest of ten children and she was number two or three. But my mother and her siblings were quite fond of her. As for her husband, they thought he was just an eccentric family uncle, and I don't think they realized how infamous he was in the physics establishment.

Q: How much of Margaret and Andrew draw from your aunt and uncle's actual experience and how much is purely fictional?
A: There were only a few family stories that revealed personal details about them-for example that she drove an elderly Franklin and had a good sense of humor. My mother had visited her in the nineteen-forties, I think, and she remembered that my aunt loved Oriental art (a trait she shares with my character Margaret Mayfield). But almost everything else about Margaret is made up. I could not seem to get her sense of humor into the novel-the material was just too dark for me. My uncle is more famous, and there were plenty of stories about him-almost all of them revealing him as appallingly egomaniacal and obsessed. There was an article about him in a physics journal which described him, essentially, as the kind of scientist you were not supposed to be.

The important thing to remember is that Margaret and Andrew take some of their inspiration from these real people, but the story about them-that is, the plot of the novel-is entirely made up by me. All of the other characters and all of the events of the novel are fictional. For me, the center of the idea was in wondering what it would be like to be married to someone like Andrew, but there was no family evidence to say how my great-aunt felt about it. Just as one example, I had to prune both Margaret's and Andrew's family trees-both had countless brothers and sisters that would overwhelm a 300-page novel. I also had to concoct a fascinating mother for Andrew-but Mrs. Early is a theory on my part, not a portrait of anyone related to Thomas Jefferson Jackson See. While I was working on the novel, I thought of Henry James, and his fear of "developments"-that the inspiring material would proliferate and get out of control.

I was also interested in the idea of Missouri and St. Louis at the end of the 19th century, after the Civil War and around the time of the World's Fair. St. Louis is a beautiful but strange city. Because of climate and epidemics of disease, in the mid-19th century, it was considered one of the worst places in the U.S. to live, but it was actually very cosmopolitan and self-satisfied, with beautiful architecture and thriving commerce. Right in the center of things for some decades.

Q: Did you have to do any research into their lives? Into the science and astronomy that Andrew studies? Or the historical events this novel spans?
A: I visited their house in Vallejo and also Mare Island, where the U.S. Navy had a base and a ship-building yard from about 1850 through the Second World War, twice, and I also read about See. His Moon Capture theory was included in a book about the moon that was published a few years ago. He is a presence on the Web, but he is still considered too "Newtonian" to be respected for anything. The scandals in Dr. Andrew Early's life are somewhat similar to the scandals in Dr. See's life. The key for me was in trying to see things through his point of view-to make a logic system that made sense to him even though it didn't make sense to anyone else. I think that it is easy for a novelist to understand a conspiracy theorist-the story gets bigger and bigger, and it all just fits together in one's mind. The person creating the story simply cannot understand why it doesn't make sense to others. I think the most telling article for me was a piece See published in the San Francisco Examiner called "The Ether Exists and I Have Seen It." The article was from about 1925, and included six pointed figures See had drawn. Even to an English major like me, this was absurd. However, I think that if he were still alive, he would insist that he had predicted the discovery of Dark Matter.

Q: This novel spans a large period of time (from 1883 to 1942, so from post-Civil War Missouri to mid-twentieth century California) and is filled with the rather epic, and public, transformative events of the last century. Why did you decide to title it Private Life?
A: The events are important, but what I was interested in was how a person lives through them and experiences them-how she interacts with them, and what they feel like and mean to her. The other important thing is how they open her up. As I have gotten older, I think that public events have gone deeper for me and had more meaning. For Margaret, the dangers of various public events open her up in a way that she doesn't quite understand. I think one part of the movement of the book is how she comes to understand a pivotal public event she experienced in her early years.

Q: The great San Francisco earthquake features prominently in this novel. Why did you decide to include that event and make it loom so large in the lives of your characters?
A: I had to include it because it was there-Margaret and Andrew move to Mare Island, and they could not have lived there and not experienced the earthquake, so I was obliged to put it in. But that's a thing I love about writing novels-you start out with a fairly small idea and then life intrudes, and you have to accommodate it and make something of it. You don't exactly know what you are doing, so you do something, and it feels right or wrong. In this case, the loss of a main character in the earthquake felt right-and how that loss affects Margaret and Andrew together is a telling aspect of their relationship.

Q: You have described this novel as "A parable of American life." What do you mean by that?
A: Andrew is a famous man and a genius. His town is proud to have produced him, and he is very conscious of his Americanness-he is the new man from the new world in the new century. And then he isn't. But he never loses that sense of entitlement. Margaret seems to me like many well-meaning Americans who are caught up in the schemes of our more grandiose and overbearing citizens. What are they doing? How should we feel about it? Should we stop them? Can we stop them? If we can't stop them, then what? When the people around you consider themselves visionaries, then you are in part responsible for their actions. That's what I mean by her marriage being a parable of American life.

Q: You open the novel with the following quote from Rose Wilder Lane, "In those days all stories ended with the wedding." Why this quote?
A: Rose Wilder Lane wrote a book about growing up in 19th century Missouri called Old Home Town. She was an interesting woman in many ways-she was the daughter of Laura Ingalls Wilder, and a very busy, well traveled, and prolific newspaperwoman, beginning in about 1900. Some people think that she ghost-wrote the Little House series-if not, then she certainly helped write it. She later became a libertarian, and one of the originators of modern Libertarianism. If you look at her picture, she has a plain but interesting face. I used her as the inspiration for the character of Dora and adopted her into the rich side of my St. Louis family, and set her up in a house by Forest Park, and sent her to Europe. I am very fond of Dora, and I think she represents a certain type of liberated woman of her day.

The essential question of the book, I think, is "what does marriage mean?" In those days, the choices were pretty stark, and so there are several different marriages in the novel. Margaret's sisters are desirable-Beatrice because she has a claim to a large property and Elizabeth because she is young and charming and has good connections. Dora and Margaret are less desirable, and so the one has a subtly arranged marriage, and the other takes advantage of Progressivism to not get married at all. But the previous generation suffers, too-Dora's mother is held in contempt by her husband and Margaret's mother is widowed early and suffers considerable hardship both married and as a widow. So the real theme of the novel is marriage-who do you marry, how is the marriage to be lived through, what does it feel like to, more or less, place a bet and then live with the consequences?

Actually, most women's stories BEGIN with the wedding, but that's not the story most novels that Margaret might have been reading addressed. Even now, the novels that continue to be most beloved, like Pride and Prejudice, end with the wedding. For Margaret, reading does not offer her a way to think about her life as it changes or the problems that the 20th century presents. I don't think these issues have disappeared, either. Marriage is more of a choice now, but the issue of how do you co-exist for a long time with someone who may be very idiosyncratic is still a big one.

Q: In Private Life you capture how men's lives have a way of taking over women's and then you give us Dora Bell, Margaret's brother-in-law's sister who is such a wonderful character and in many ways Margaret's opposite. She is a writer who bucks convention, always speaks her mind, travels the world, doesn't marry. Did you want to offer a flip side to Margaret's married life?
A: Dora is a girl her mother despairs of, who is simply too unorthodox and plain to find a regular husband. What is she going to do? Well, one thing she is going to do is have a sense of style. Another thing she is going to do is see the world, and still another is not be told what to do. I think one thing that happens to everyone that is fascinating is that we see the lives of our friends diverging from and contrasting to our own lives, and we contemplate the contrasts, and what they say about our friends and about ourselves. The counterpart of Dora is Pete, a somewhat suspicious character she brings into Margaret's life. He is Russian and has gained and lost several fortunes. I wanted Pete and Dora to represent another side of life as it was being lived a hundred years ago-dangerous, exciting, and dramatic.

Q: Can you tell us a little about the Kimuras and the role they come to play in Margaret's life?
A: My great Aunt loved moving from Missouri to California, and one of the reasons was that she came to love Japanese and Chinese art. I share her fascination with those paintings and prints. To me they are much more mysterious and grand than European art-not in size, but in concept. For Margaret, her interest in Japanese art is a way of possessing something, but because Andrew considers her his possession, it backfires as the war approaches. There was a small neighborhood in Vallejo known as Japantown, and the Japanese presence in San Francisco and in California as a whole has always been very important culturally, as well as politically charged. I tried to imagine a set of characters that would be realistically alluring for someone like Margaret, who would serve as a contrast to her life, but also have their own story. What actually happens between Margaret, Pete, Andrew, and the Kimuras is entirely made up, since I knew nothing about my aunt's love for Japanese and Chinese art other than that is existed.

Q: Andrew has all sorts of paranoid theories but he has a particular obsession with Albert Einstein who he believes is a fraud and also believes has come to California to spy on him (and on America). Why is he so fixated on Einstein?
A: I think if someone feels himself to be a great genius, then he is ready to joust with the one whom he considers his most dangerous rival. No one in Andrew's life considers Andrew and Einstein to be on a par-except, of course, for Andrew. He becomes fixated on Einstein because he simply cannot accept Einstein's ideas and can't figure out how to stop them. He sees himself as a Lone Ranger type, preserving the truth from the encroachments of idiocy. There are so many novels and non-fiction works about geniuses who were right in the end. But what if the genius is not right in the end? There are more of those and Andrew is in that camp for certain.

Q: Margaret has a hazy memory of being taken, as a child age five, by her brother to a public hanging. The hanging, which she claims not to recall in any detail, is mentioned in passing several times during this novel and then comes to feature prominently at the novel's end. What about this formative event in her life made you want to return to it as a kind of bookend to her story?
A: I think the hanging stands for all the traumas of Margaret's not very unusual Missouri childhood that she had to endure without really processing. She has no way to process it, really, except to sort of avoid trouble. And it's not only the hanging itself, which is traumatic, but a moment during the hanging that only happened by chance that is in some sense the most traumatic. But she is expected to deal with it and go on-everyone else does, don't they?

Q: Having grown up in Missouri, like Margaret, and eventually settling in Northern California, do you feel a particular affinity for the places in this novel? How has this particular geography shaped your own life?
A: Missouri is a strange and beautiful state, and has produced some interesting writers-Twain, of course, T.S. Eliot, Langston Hughes, Kate Chopin, Evan S. Connell. Tennessee Williams grew up there. There are lots of us. Missouri is where the East and the West and the South bang together, and co-exist in a beautiful landscape. Missouri is always a little behind the times and a little ahead of the times-your sense of being cosmopolitan comes from history.

I love California. It is far far away and right in the center of things all at once. California is in some ways incomprehensible, but I love having the opportunity to think about it. At one point, Margaret reads Two Years Before the Mast by Richard Henry Dana, Jr. In that account, California is utterly mysterious and remote, and twenty years later, it had been entered and settled. I still feel that sense of the wild and the known when I look out my windows.

Q: Even with all their flaws do you feel a certain affection for Margaret and Andrew?
A: I am fond of Margaret, and I sympathize with her from beginning to end-I think she is a tragic figure. She is generous and kind and well-intentioned, and as her friends say, a good person. She's also intelligent. She reads newspapers and books and tries to do the right thing. But she is never equipped by the standard wisdom of her day (given to her by relatives and friends) to understand either her husband or herself. I think this is true, in fact, of us, too. It is part of the human condition to be always trying to put two and two together when in fact the numbers, unbeknownst to you, are three and four, not two and two, and just when you've come up with the answer, you realize that it's wrong. Can a normal woman be a tragic figure in literature, and not merely a "poor thing"? I would like to think so. But the one I really, and somewhat surprisingly came around to understanding better was Andrew. He is appalling in his way, but, while I don't agree with him, and would run the other direction if he came into the room, I see his point of view. How can he not engage in his passion? How can he not attempt, over and over, to take lemons and make lemonade? His mind is always working, but his ego is always working, too. That's the sad thing.

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Reading Group Guide

1. How would you describe this novel in one sentence?

2. Smiley’s epigraph for the book is a quote from Rose Wilder Lane. Why do you think she chose this particular line?

3. What is the purpose of the prologue? How did it color your interpretation of what followed?

4. Over the course of this novel—which stretches across six decades of American history—how does the role of women change? How might Margaret’s life—and marriage—have been different were she born later?

5. This is a book that begins and ends with war—starting in a Missouri that is just emerging from the destruction of the Civil War, concluding in California on the eve of World War II. Margaret’s personal life is also punctuated by historical events, the San Francisco Earthquake among them. How does this history affect the lives of characters? How does Margaret’s story offer the reader a different perspective on the larger life of the nation?

6. On page 64, Smiley writes, “Margaret began to have a fated feeling, as if accumulating experiences were precipitating her toward an already decided future.” Do you think her fated feeling proved accurate? Was marrying Andrew a choice she made, was the decision that of both of their mothers, or was it dictated by the time and place?

7. Lavinia tells Margaret, “A wife only has to do as she’s told for the first year” (page 75). When does Margaret finally take this advice? Why? Do you think this is good advice or manipulation?

8. Compare Lavinia’s advice with the counsel in the letters Margaret finds from Mrs. Early to Andrew. Whose is more useful? More insightful? Do you find Mrs. Early’s behavior toward Margaret and her mother deceitful?

9. What does Dora represent to Margaret? If she could trade places with her, do you think Margaret would? How does Dora think of Margaret? Do Margaret and Dora have anything in common? If not, what do you think brings them together?

10. Margaret and Andrew are both devastated by their son Alexander’s death, yet they react in different ways. How does Andrew’s perspective on this tragedy—that of a scientist and a man who believes in logical explanations—differ from Margaret’s? How does Alexander’s death change their marriage? Might things have been different if he had lived? Why or why not?

11. Thinking about Alexander’s death leads Margaret to think about her brothers and father and the way they died (page 138). Why do you think Private Life opens with descriptions of their deaths? Margaret thinks that their deaths must have been worse for her mother than Alexander’s was for her; do you agree?

12. What is the nature of Dora’s relationship to Pete? What do they get from each other? Pete and Andrew are both liars, yet very different men—but they also seem to get along. What, if anything, do you think they share? And how are they different from each other?

13. Discuss Andrew’s theories of the universe, and his academic dishonesty. Can you think of a modern-day analogue? If he were exposed today, what would happen to him?

14. Andrew Early is a scientist who is described to us at first as a genius. But it turns out to be more complex than that, and for as many of his ideas that are right (the earthquake, the moon craters) others are wrong (ether, double stars). Do you think it’s at all accurate to describe him as a “genius”—or even a “mad genius?” How does “science” augment the overall story the novel is telling

15. What role does Len Scanlan play in the novel, and in Margaret’s evolving perception of her husband and his work? Why doesn’t Margaret tell Andrew about Len’s indiscretions with Helen Branch?

16. Margaret falls in love with a family of birds—coots—that live in a nearby pond. Why do you think they grow to mean so much to her? What is the significance of the coots to this story of a marriage?

17. Japanese art plays a significant part in the novel. What does it represent to Margaret? How does it tie Margaret to the Kimura family?

18. At several points in the novel, Margaret gets a glimpse of how others see her. But how does she see herself? Is her self-image more or less accurate than Andrew’s?

19. Re-read the passage on page 273, about Dora’s reflections on human beings, birds, and freedom. What is Margaret’s reaction? How has Dora changed in the course of the novel? How does this compare to the ways in which Margaret changes?

20. Is Pete the great love of Margaret’s life? What effect does he have on her and the decisions she makes? If Andrew discovered the truth of this relationship, would he feel as wronged by her as she feels by him?

21. Why does Andrew denounce the Kimuras and Pete? Does he have an ulterior motive?

22. Do you think Andrew’s reports are taken seriously—is he responsible for the Kimuras being arrested, or was their fate inevitable given the time and place? Does Andrew’s behavior add a new dimension to your understanding of the World War II internment?

23. On page 294, when Margaret tells Andrew that The Gift is a picture of Len Scanlan, what does she mean?

24. At the end of the novel, Margaret recounts to her knitting group a hanging she witnessed as a young girl and can recall in detail. “I do remember it now that I’ve dared to think about it,” she tells them. “There are so many things that I should have dared before this” (page 318). What do you think she means by this? What do you think of the last line of the book: “And her tone was so bitter that the other ladies fell silent.”  What is the significance of the hanging to Margaret’s story, to her life, and to “her” book?

25. What do you take away from the story of Margaret’s entire life? How does this novel compare to accounts in nineteenth- and twentieth-century novels that center around women’s lives?

26. Jane Smiley has revealed that the characters of Margaret and Andrew are very loosely based on “my grandfather’s much older sister [and] her husband, an eccentric family uncle . . . infamous in the physics establishment.” Yet most of the story’s details are fictional. Does knowing this change the way you see Margaret and her story?

(For a complete list of available reading group guides, and to sign up for the Reading Group Center enewsletter, visit www.readinggroupcenter.com)

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See All Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 24 Customer Reviews
  • Posted May 10, 2010

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    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.

    2 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

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