Private Life by Jane Smiley
Pulitzer Prize winner Jane Smiley’s latest offering Private Life details the lumbering but inevitable evolution of Margaret Mayfield. Beginning in 1880, Smiley details the premise of Margaret’s life: scarred early by the abrupt deaths of her two brothers and father, Margaret finds herself the old maid (at 27) of a small Missouri town outside of St. Louis. Seemingly content to spend her life reading books and assisting in the lives of her mothers and sisters, Margaret happens upon what appears at the time to be a stroke of luck: a marriage proposal from Captain Andrew Jackson Jefferson Early. Throughout the novel it is slowly revealed that while Captain Early is an intelligent man, an astronomer by trade, he is plagued by personality flaws including arrogance, fanaticism and a desperate need for praise. Eventually, his flaws outweigh any real contributions he could possibly make to his vocation and he leaves the impression of an eccentric fool.
Once her unlikely marriage commences, Margaret finds herself in a rut. While she temporarily assuages her misery with reminiscences of her mother’s teachings–all essentially claiming that wives need only be obedient for a short while and can then lead a more rewarding private life–she is never content. Margaret tempers with an affair later in life and treasures a friendship with a Japanese family named Kimura, but consistently finds herself a spectator of life Andrew has created. To emphasize this theme Smiley peppers her novel with events of historical significance, including the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and both World Wars, in which Andrew inserts himself and Margaret simply stands by.
Margaret reaches a turning point, however, when in the form of an epiphany, she realizes the folly of her husband’s ideas. She comes to the realization that she is not required to believe in his theories and determines that in fact, she does not. However, instead of freeing her, all this realization engenders is a deeper sense of bitterness and antipathy in Margaret for her husband. And so, Margaret trudges on for several decades wallowing in a deeper misery. The end of the book, however, is much more gratifying than the bulk when the reader is rewarded with a glimmer of a revelation in her protagonist. Finally recalling a long-suppressed traumatic memory, Margaret explains the details of the oft-mentioned public hanging she attended with her brother. In detailing this account she vocalizes her life’s regret, that more often than not, she did not do what she dared to. With this, the reader has hope that Margaret will make the most of what remains of her life.
While I found the conclusion of Private Life rewarding, and in some ways hopeful, the novel is beleaguered with flaws. The greatest of these flaws is certainly its pace. Throughout the book I felt that the same episode was repeated: Andrew has a theory, Andrew takes the theory too far, Margaret finds it ridiculous, Margaret does nothing. Therefore overall, my feelings on this book are tepid. I certainly don’t feel that I’ve wasted my time, as I did enjoy reading Smiley’s prose, however, I doubt I’ll be recommending this book to others.