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Private Life by Jane Smiley

Private Life

by Jane Smiley

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5724717,365 (3.28)1 / 56

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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 |
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 |
Showing 1-5 of 50 (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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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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