Hide this

Results from Google Books

Click on a thumbnail to go to Google Books.

Private Life by Jane Smiley

Private Life

by Jane Smiley

MembersReviewsPopularityAverage ratingConversations / Mentions
5474618,310 (3.28)1 / 55

Sign up for LibraryThing to find out whether you'll like this book.

Showing 1-5 of 48 (next | show all)
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 |
I read this back in 2010 and again in 2015, being utterly determined to read everything Jane Smiley ever wrote. The book is a remarkable exploration of an unsuccessful marriage, from 1883 to WWII, of a driven scientist, Captain Early, and his wife Margaret. From St. Louis to Vallejo, California, the Captain expounds on his scientific theories and Margaret types his manuscripts. Along the way, she discovers brilliant people - her cousin Dora, a reporter, Dora's friend Pete, a Russian whose many storied lives cross continents and governments, and the Kimura family, artists and midwives. But she can never quite grow and develop herself due to the stranglehold of her husband and her inability to dismiss him.

The most touching passages are found letters from her mother-in-law to her husband, in which Mrs. Early rues her son's lack of sanity and wisdom. Her loss is a monumental tragedy. And Margaret's observations of a family of coots, formed by her newly engaged love of Japanese brushwork through the Kimuras, are deeply profound and memorable.

Well worth a second reading! ( )
  froxgirl | Aug 30, 2015 |
A young woman marries an older man who later turns out to be a hopeless idiot. Though he considers himself an authority on all things scientific, he is completely out of touch with the changing scientific landscape.

As he ages into his sixties he becomes completely senile and paranoid while his young wife finds herself more and more trapped by his dominating presence. Set in San Francisco. A story with a strong sense of time and place. ( )
  Juva | Mar 30, 2015 |
“Private Life” by Pulitzer-Prize winning novelist Jane Smiley is a third-person narrated account of the life -- from the age of five in 1883 to the age of 64 in 1942 -- of an accommodating, submissive woman, Margaret (Mayfield) Early, who, finally, out of necessity must assert herself. I felt that Smiley’s narration, a consequence of Margaret’s compliant nature, lacked excitement until maybe a fourth of the way into the book when she marries her husband, Captain Andrew Early, an egotistical astronomer and physicist. I empathized more and more with Margaret’s character as her dissatisfaction with Andrew progressed.

People late in life tend to judge their past lives in terms of accomplishment and fulfillment. Margaret’s judgment becomes one of bitterness, toward those who have manipulated and controlled her and toward her own cowardice of accommodation. Accomplishment requires courage. Fulfillment requires contentment with outcomes and with oneself as a human being. Throughout most of the novel Margaret lacks the courage to forge her identity and determine her future. She has allowed stronger-minded individuals to control her. Her enjoyments result from her associations with strong-minded yet considerate acquaintances: her eccentric, exciting sister-in-law Dora; Mrs. Lear, a neighbor and wise advisor at Mare Island Naval Base, Calfironia; Mrs. Wareham, a compassionate boarding house landlady in Vallejo, California; Pete Krizenko, an adventurous, mysterious Ukrainian entrepreneur for whom Margaret feels an emotional and sexual attraction; and the Kimura family – the aging father, an exquisite painter; the mother, a tireless, traveling midwife; and the daughter Naoko, a trustworthy midwife and housekeeper.

At the beginning of Part One of the novel we learn that Margaret, living near St. Louis, Missouri, has repressed her memory of a public hanging that her older brother had taken her to witness when she was five years old. Both of her brothers die during her childhood. Margaret’s father, a physician, kills himself. Margaret’s mother Lavinia moves her family to her father’s nearby farm where they reside until her three daughters marry. From an early age Margaret learns resignation.

Lavinia considers Margaret, at age 23, to be lazy because she is content to read books rather than assert herself to attract suitors. Daughters of several of Lavinia’s friends have taken school teacher jobs in Idaho to find husbands. Margaret tells Pete Krizenko fairly late in the novel: “I was the third sister even though I’m the oldest. There’s always a beautiful sister and a smart sister, and then there’s a sister that’s not beautiful or smart.” Lavinia places her daughters Elizabeth and Beatrice in social circles where their attributes attract eventual husbands. Margaret appears destined to be an old maid. However, Mrs. Jared Early, a rich, seemingly generous, well-educated widow and elitist member of high St. Louis society, befriends Lavinia, and, ultimately, Margaret. Her son, Andrew Early, educated at Columbia and the University of Berlin, and recently a professor at the University of Chicago, visits St. Louis. Mrs. Early arranges for Lavinia and Margaret to spend a fiercely cold winter night at her residence. Andrew is present. Margaret had met him by chance briefly several years before. Margaret experiences “the distinct feeling of staring into her own future … The play had begun. The customary ending was promised. Her own role was to say her lines sincerely and with appropriate feeling. At her age, she thought, she should know what those feelings were, but she did not.”

In the spring of 1903 Mrs. Early arranges to have her son and Margaret tour the exposition grounds of the 100th year celebration of the Louisiana Purchase. Margaret recognizes that “he was not exactly like other mortals—he knew more, saw more. His mind worked more quickly and surveyed a broader landscape.” Submitting to the wishes of her mother and Mrs. Early, Margaret persuades herself to believe that, unlike other couples, they could share a unique life. He leaves St. Louis to spend several weeks in Washington, D.C. Afterward, he travels to Arizona and California. Lavinia advises patience. Eventually he returns and proposes. Thus begins their unique, increasingly unhappy marriage.

Years later Margaret discovers several letters that Mrs. Early had written to Andrew about the purpose of the marriage.

"Our thoughts about certain persons here in this town may not have come to anything (though the girl and her mother still seem receptive enough), but there are other girls and other mothers. My very least favorite thought is that of you solitary and alone, with no companion and no one to care for you. … No, the girl is not educated nor evidently intelligent, quiet without being mysterious (though I think there is more to her than meets the eye), but what do you want in a wife at your age? [He was 38, she 27] … I do not, frankly, think that you could abide a rival or even a young woman who considered herself your equal and spoke her own ideas back to you with any sort of self-confidence. … This girl is a well-made young woman with proper instincts and reasonable connections. Her mother has trained her to take care of household matters."

Telling Margaret’s thoughts, the author narrates: “in the end, Mrs. Early carried her point—she had chosen the local old maid, harmless but useful, to marry and care for her darling son” and that Lavinia had been “in on the plot. … Not only had he [Andrew] entertained doubts about her, he had tried her out, seen that he could have her, and then doubted and hesitated and suffered before taking her as the least of evils.”

Margaret learns that Andrew is actually two men. “When he was wondering [his greatest talent], he was a likable, congenial, and sociable person. When he had stopped wondering and was convinced that he knew the answer, he became stubborn and stern.” Before their marriage, while he was at Columbia and Chicago, he had challenged his superiors’ theories and made enemies. Married to Margaret, forced thereafter to work independently of academia, at a naval observatory at Mare Island, California, he spends most of the next three and a half decades of his life seeking to achieve scientific world acclaim. He writes numerous newspaper and scientific journal articles; he makes speeches; he writes lengthy books about the universe. “Private Life” is as much a portrait of an unstable genius who, craving adulation and not receiving it, becomes delusional and callously destructive as it is the portrait of a not remarkable, submissive, but decent woman who must defy her deep-rooted passivity to take command of her life.

Margaret’s and Andrew’s dual stories weave through many important historical events: the San Francisco Earthquake, World War I, the influenza epidemic of 1918, the Stock Market Crash of 1929 and the Great Depression, the rise of totalitarianism in Germany, Pearl Harbor, and the internment of Japanese American citizens.

Early during my reading I considered not finishing the novel. “The pace is slow,” I complained to my wife. A fourth of her way through the book, while I was writing the first draft of this review, she disagreed. “It’s not slow at all.” I persevered and was amply rewarded. This is a thought-provoking book. In strategic places Jane Smiley’s excellent command of language stirred powerfully my emotions. I conclude this review with this example, the death of Margaret’s jaundiced baby.

"Alarm and guilt surged in her, burning upward from her feet, enveloping her head, her brain, her mind in a fever of knowledge. … Alexander started to make a noise, high-pitched and distressed, and to arch his back. It seemed to her that he was crying for help, so she picked him up and went to the door of the room and opened it. Naoko was in the hallway. She looked at her, and without Margaret’s saying a thing, the girl ran out the front door. Margaret closed her door and carried Alexander over to the bed. She sat down and readied herself to nurse, but in that short moment, the moment between her sitting down and her putting him to the breast, he lost even that ability—Margaret felt it. It was a feeling of something dissolving. She looked at his face. She saw that he had but one thing left, which was that he could look back at her. She stroked the top of his head, moving the thin hairs this way and that, feeling the smoothness of his golden skin. She held him closer, as gently as she could. And then, in the way that you can feel with your baby but not see or sense with anyone else larger or more distantly related, she felt the life force go out of him entirely." ( )
  HaroldTitus | Jan 11, 2015 |
Showing 1-5 of 48 (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.
You must log in to edit Common Knowledge data.
For more help see the Common Knowledge help page.
Series (with order)
Canonical title
Original title
Alternative titles
Original publication date
Important places
Important events
Related movies
Awards and honors
Information from the Russian Common Knowledge. Edit to localize it to your language.
In those days, all stories ended with the wedding. -Rose Wilder Lane, Old Home Town
First words
Stella, who had been sleeping in her basket in the corner, leapt up barking then slipped out the bedroom door.
Last words
(Click to show. Warning: May contain spoilers.)
Disambiguation notice
Publisher's editors
Publisher series
Original language

References to this work on external resources.

Wikipedia in English


Book description
Haiku summary

No descriptions found.

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.

» see all 5 descriptions

Quick Links

Swap Ebooks Audio
4 avail.
57 wanted
2 pay4 pay

Popular covers


Average: (3.28)
0.5 3
1 9
1.5 1
2 11
2.5 7
3 39
3.5 22
4 38
4.5 3
5 15


2 editions of this book were published by Audible.com.

See editions

LibraryThing Early Reviewers Alumn

Private Life by Jane Smiley was made available through LibraryThing Early Reviewers. Sign up to possibly get pre-publication copies of books.

Is this you?

Become a LibraryThing Author.


Help/FAQs | About | Privacy/Terms | Blog | Store | Contact | LibraryThing.com | APIs | WikiThing | Common Knowledge | Legacy Libraries | Early Reviewers | 105,948,980 books! | Top bar: Always visible