PRIVATE LIFE by Jane Smiley

Book Quote:

“The world goes whispering to its own…My days go on, my days go on.”

Book Review:

Review by Betsey Van Horn (JUN 25, 2010)

After I read Jane Smiley’s non-fiction 13 Ways of Looking at the Novel, I valued her choices as a writer who takes enterprising risks, who jiggles out of her comfort zone or creates a wider berth within her artistic province. She retains some of her fixtures–horses, solipsistic academicians, and thwarted women–as she creates this period piece of wedded UN-bliss. In this latest, a novel of a marriage during fin de siecle America, Private Life spans from Missouri to the California Naval Observatory in Villejo, California, from the end of American Victorianism to the Japanese internment of 1942.

Though not as arch (and at the top of her game) as Moo or ripe with the generational conflict of A Thousand Acres, Smiley skillfully paints a portrait of a latter day marriage, with its focus on the quotidian banalities of everyday life. Protagonist Margaret Early’s marriage to Captain Andrew Jackson Jefferson Early is examined in all its quiet desperation through Margaret’s inner torment and repression scratching at her tough outer shell.

Smiley matches her writing style to the era; at the beginning were flavors of Wharton. I have to admit that, although it had its stylistic purpose, I was more than content to leave that behind and move, almost imperceptibly, to a more modern and tempered style as Margaret and Andrew moved to California to begin their married life at the turn of the twentieth century.

Margaret is a well-established character by the time she marries Andrew as a “spinster” of twenty-seven. She is one of three Missouri sisters–her brothers both died young, as well as her physician father (when she was a little girl). She is willing to behave conventionally and suppress her individuality, subsuming her identity in her husband’s and finding a refuge through books and a growing appreciation of nature and Japanese art; of her knitting circle and her dreams. As time moves on, she is less content in this role as obsequious wife but lacks resources and the law on her side. As a reader, it is easy to get frustrated with her acceptance of Andrew, a boorish and hypomanic egomaniac who evolves into an obsessive-compulsive buffoon. We glimpse more nakedly into his character through his mother’s letters, which gradually reveal horrifying facets of him as an astronomer and competitive academic scientist. We understand Margaret through her inner life, living in the insular and cosmopolitan California.

“What seemed a horror was endured and then buried in the routine of daily activities.” And “Certain dramatic steps required an imperviousness of character that she did not possess; she came to be relieved that she had not taken them.”

There is a relief from all this suppression with the character of Dora, Margaret’s sister-in-law. Dora is a progressive feminist, but Smiley’s characterization is ultimately flimsy and forgettable. She inhabits the cookie-cutter variety, giving her more of a straw appearance for the novel’s themes. Dora’s on and off beau, Pete, is wily and worldly, but his purpose also unfortunately fades. He is a cipher who becomes the temporary stalwart brick.

As a reader, we engage fully with Margaret; when tragedy strikes, it knocks us off-balance, too. However, her own defense mechanisms frequently keep her aslant of her own realizations, allowing the reader to see her denials more clearly than she does, but in quietly tense increments. We also view Andrew through the lens of Margaret’s oblique vision. His bloated narcissism expands and astonishes through Smiley’s controlled and almost languid prose. There are several other characters rounding out the cast, but they are not fully dimensional, providing convenient but not riveting content.

The stifling, progressively claustrophobic marriage portrait is played out against a canvas of key world historical events. Smiley’s motif of expand-contract is manifested through this canvas; against Andrew’s moon-capture theories of the cosmos; and through the cognitive dissonance of Margaret’s inner and outer life.

A commendable novel, quite moving at intervals, with a satisfying finish, but the wattage dimmed once the story ended.

AMAZON READER RATING: stars-3-5from 68 readers
PUBLISHER: Knopf; 1 edition (May 4, 2010)
REVIEWER: Betsey Van Horn
AUTHOR WEBSITE: Wikipedia page on Jane Smiley and her HuffPost blog
EXTRAS: Reading Guide and Excerpt
MORE ON MOSTLYFICTION: Read our review of:

13 Ways of Looking at the Novel

Good Faith


For Teen Readers:


Movies from books:

June 25, 2010 · Judi Clark · No Comments
Tags: , ,  · Posted in: California, Facing History, Family Matters, Reading Guide, US Midwest, y Award Winning Author

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