Monday, May 17, 2010

Private Life

Nobody ever said that marriage is easy.

Private Life is Jane Smiley’s rather dry take on marriage as seen through the eyes of the women of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. It is filled with husbands that are, at best, benevolent dictators and, at worst, contemptible egomaniacs that see their wives as little more than housekeepers to be slept with on occasion. There are very few happy women in Private Life and, with the possible exception of Mrs. Kimura (a Japanese immigrant to America), none of them are married. For these women, marriage is a crapshoot and, by the time they figure out if they have won or loss, it is too late to ask for a second roll of the dice.

It is telling that two of the most accomplished women in the novel, and probably its happiest overall, are women who choose not to marry: the Kimura daughter, who works with her midwife mother, and Dora, a successful newspaper correspondent and friend of the book’s main character, Margaret Mayfield. The other women eventually, sooner for some than for others, come to see their marriages as more burden than blessing.

Private Life opens in 1942, just as Margaret Mayfield locates what is left of a Japanese family she has grown close to during her years in coastal California. The Kimuras are living in a horse stall at the closed-down racetrack where they, along with hundreds of others of Japanese descent, have been interned on the orders of the federal government. What particularly hurts Margret is the role played in their arrest by her husband, the self-declared-genius, astronomer, and unofficial physicist, Andrew Jackson Jefferson Early. By 1942, Margaret knows that her husband is more fool than genius and she regrets the lifetime she has squandered in his company.

Smiley tells Margaret’s story in a series of flashbacks of five-to-ten-year intervals, beginning with her childhood in rural Missouri where she grew up with her two sisters and two brothers. Life was cheap in nineteenth century Missouri; women died during childbirth, men in war, and both sexes frequently succumbed to illness and accident. The Mayfield family is often visited by tragedy and, at age 27 already dangerously close to spinsterhood, Margaret will marry more out of desperation than of love. If only she had known what was to come of her marriage to Captain Andrew Early.

Andrew Jackson Jefferson Early is a man with a high opinion of himself, one who never considers the possibility that he might be wrong on any scientific question or issue of the day. He makes a good initial impression on those he seeks to impress but cannot control his emotions or tongue if challenged. Finally, having burned one bridge after another behind him, he brings Margaret to the observatory at Mare Island’s U.S. Navy base and shipyard where he will work for the next several decades. It is on Mare Island and in Vallejo, California, that Margaret will proceed to waste the rest of her life alongside the man she comes to realize is insane.

This is not an easy book to read, despite its interesting theme and look at early twentieth century California history (including the San Francisco earthquake of 1906), because of the degree to which it gets bogged down in the details of Andrew Early’s misguided scientific theories. Those who make it through those pages, however, might feel it was worth their effort in the end.

Yes, nobody said that marriage would be easy. According to Jane Smiley, it might just be impossible.

Rated at: 3.0


  1. It is a shame that you say that this is not so easy to read as I must say that it sounds as though it deals with fascinating themes.

    Thanks indeed for sharing


  2. I don't like all of Smiley's stuff, but this seems like it would be right up my alley.

  3. Hannah, it might just be me. I almost always find Smiley somewhat difficult to read...slow to the point that I have to re-read whole paragraphs when my mind starts to drift.

  4. Bybee, I'm not much of a Smiley fan and have ever really been impressed by one of her books...guess which one?