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Private Life - Book of the Month

by Jane Smiley

PRIVATE LIFE, the latest novel by the multi-talented Jane Smiley, covers a lot of history. It begins in Missouri in the 1880s, where public hangings still happen and the civil war is still talked about, and ends with the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbour in 1942. It’s not a historical novel though, rather the study of a marriage. It tells the story of Margaret Mayfield, a 27 year old “spinster”, and her subsequent marriage to Captain Andrew Jackson Jefferson Early, a scientist and local boy made good. The marriage is a great relief to Margaret’s mother who (with hints of Mrs Bennett) having seen her other two daughters safely hitched, is beginning to despair - impervious to the tragedy and trauma in Margaret’s early life that may account for her daughter’s reserved nature.

Andrew is a very tall but in an awkward, rather than commanding, way. His lack of intimacy, social ineptitude, and obsession with his crackpot theories (seen by the local Missourians as his genius) suggest what we now perhaps see as a medical disorder or syndrome. The couple move to a naval base near San Francisco, where Andrew takes a post, and gradually Margaret sees the cracks appear. In a wonderfully terse sentence, Smiley sums up the pomposity of his character: “Andrew talked endlessly about the universe”.

The social conventions of the time are clear. For women, one’s own money is the only alternative to marriage (not to marry at all seems not to be an option) and Margaret can only watch as her sister-in-law, Dora, uses her inheritance to carve out a career as a journalist, or admire her spirited, widowed, mother-in-law’s travels with her companion. So, Margaret performs her wifely duties, joins the knitting and card circles and just gets on with her limited existence. Disappointment and tragedy ensure that no children are part of their world: one wonders if Andrew would have had room for a child anyway. Friends and acquaintances come and go, like Pete, the maybe, or maybe-not Russian spy; the gentle Kimura family; and the wise Mrs Lear. But Margaret mostly remains solitary in thought and deed.

This book is a slow burn covering a long time-span and recounting real historical events, but Smiley weaves her research carefully into the story and resists the temptation to over-burden the reader with facts. It is, essentially, the story of a marriage and, while Andrew scrutinizes the universe through his telescope, we see Margaret’s life minutely observed through a metaphorical microscope.

Irene Haynes

Read our interview with Jane Smiley.

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