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Private Life by Jane Smiley
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Private Life

by Jane Smiley

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Private Life primarily follows the life of Margaret Mayfield spanning her life in the generation following the Civil War up to World War II.

After the childhood deaths of two of her brothers and her father, there was now a pressing need for Margaret and her sisters to be married off. Through the machinations of her mother and future mother in law, she was attached to a locally renowned scholar and astronomer several years her senior.

Andrew Early was socially awkward, but this was chalked up to his being a genius. Margaret was drawn to his strangeness in a way and in her naïveté and the fact that she was nearing the age of being forever labeled an old maid, she felt relieved to have been chosen by him. Her fascination with his genius, which he displayed at any opportunity, soon gave way to the realization that his self-interests would always overshadow her. Her life now centered around him. There was no physical or emotional passion between them, other than brief moments when he was stirred by a spark of new discovery related to his work causing him to feel more amorous toward his wife.

Over the years, she became frustrated with Andrew's obsessiveness and incessant need to always be right. He burned bridges with former colleagues and employers by one-upping them or correcting their work and insisting they were wrong. After someone close to him was killed in the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, he focused all his attentions on the earthquake itself and the hows and wheres of the damage it caused.

He was obsessed with a decades-long (one-sided) dispute with Albert Einstein over his quantum theory. In his later years, he considered himself a bit of a sleuth and spied on Japanese Americans he thought were partaking in suspicious activities, passing (unwanted and inaccurate) information onto the government. In doing so, he betrayed close friends, including a Japanese family Margaret enjoyed spending time with, as well as including unfounded suspicions that his own wife was being used unwittingly to transport information. (Nail. Coffin.)

Margaret only had a couple moments of rebellion against her husband, neither one being worth the effort. She was destined to live a life of grey.

This has beautiful writing which makes the reading of it pleasant, but the story itself is rather uneventful. I did enjoy the portions of the book which covered true historical events, i.e. the San Francisco earthquake and the internment of Japanese Americans at a former racetrack called Tanforan, outside of the city.

There is a quote used by the author in the epigraph taken from Rose Wilder Lane's Old Home Town:

"In those days all stories ended with the wedding."

Because most of this particular story centers around Margaret Early's rather mundane married life, I think the author may have been trying to warn readers of what lies ahead as they embark on their reading. Pleasant but dull. ( )
  AddictedToMorphemes | May 2, 2017 |
Masterful. Reviewers compare it to Middlemarch, understandably, but I was more reminded of Mrs. Bridge, one of my favorite books ever. Both manage to make an ordinary life extraordinary, to delve into the mind and heart of a protagonist straitjacketed by both character and circumstance without making the reader feel oppressed. A deep, complex, involving and psychologically acute portrait of a marriage, a woman, and a time. ( )
  SaraSkatheld | Sep 28, 2016 |
I did not care much for this except for the historical relevance to Einstein, Word War II, and the San Francisco Earthquake/fire. Long suffering woman married to a man who lives on his own level. Not enough hope to keep me going. ( )
  Michelle_Wendt | Jun 15, 2016 |
This book is a novel about Margaret Mayfield Early's life, spanning the era from 1883, when she was a young girl, to 1942. Her parents remembered vividly the American Civil War, and she lived through the Spanish-American War and World Wars I and II. (To be honest, World War II had just begun when Private Life ends, but Margaret is still strong and healthy.)

At 27 years, Margaret Mayfield is not beautiful nor especially talented. Her younger sisters marry and begin rearing families. It seems that Margaret is destined to remain an old maid - until Captain Andrew Early comes along. He doesn't exactly sweep her off her feet; his interest in her seems amazingly cool and indifferent, but she accepts his proposal. He is of a respectable family; his mother is a friend of her mother and he is always well groomed, and not unattractive. He has written a book concerning his theories of the universe, which has caught everyone's attention. It is only later, much later, that Margaret discovers that he has also caught unfavorable attention from his superiors and others at the university where he taught, and was forced to leave suddenly.

Immediately after their marriage, Andrew and Margaret move to California from Missouri, where Margaret has lived all her life. Taking an interest in her new surroundings, making friends and joining women's groups, Margaret is not homesick or bored. Time passes, and their hopes for a large family of strong, lively sons is thwarted. She grows less enchanted with her husband, as unsettling truths are slowly revealed, and his overbearing personality becomes more pronounced. She finds her time at home alone, when he is at work or engrossed in his projects, are a relief.

Margaret's old friend Dora (her sister's sister-in-law) has remained a busy, single career woman, traveling all over the world as a newspaper reporter. Although it is never expressed overtly, it seems that Margaret is envious of Dora's freedom. Although, actually Margaret is surprisingly free to come and go as she pleases, for a woman of her time. Her husband purchased an automobile, but insisted that she, not he, be the one to learn to drive it. She roams all over her small city and the county, and into San Francisco, observing nature and visiting friends which include a Japanese family and a Russian ex-patriot.

The Prologue and the Epilogue take in place in 1942, after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. These sections deal with the aftermath, especially the detainment and internment of Japanese families, Margaret's friends particularly. ( )
  FancyHorse | Sep 5, 2015 |
This is the first book I have read by this author and perhaps not her best. I found this a fairly slow read, however I think she conveys the loneliness and frustration of Margaret through this device. She certainly highlights the plight of women during this period. ( )
  HelenBaker | Aug 31, 2015 |
Showing 1-5 of 51 (next | show all)
While not all marriages are as suffocating as Margaret Early’s, the novel reminds us that, for many, that holy sacrament was, and continues to be, a matter of solemn duty and agonising boredom'. Photograph: Time & Life Pictures/Getty Image

In these too public times, the notion of a private life seems both desirable and strangely exotic, but for the unhappy wife in Jane Smiley's brilliant new book, it is something altogether different. Thinking – but, characteristically, not talking, even to her dearest friend – about her relationship with her husband, Margaret Early comes to the conclusion that "their lives were mostly private now, lived side by side as necessary, but whatever there had been for them both . . . had dissipated the way certain qualities of light did."
added by AlexDraven | editGuardian, John Burnside (May 22, 2010)
 
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.
 
Ms. Smiley traces this change with such skill that reading about it becomes ever more gripping as her novel takes readers closer to that day at the racecourse. 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.
 
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In those days, all stories ended with the wedding. -Rose Wilder Lane, Old Home Town
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Stella, who had been sleeping in her basket in the corner, leapt up barking then slipped out the bedroom door.
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(Click to show. Warning: May contain spoilers.)
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As her husband's obsessions with science take a darker turn on the eve of World War II, Margaret Mayfield is forced to consider the life she has so carefully constructed.

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