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Private Life

Who ever knows what goes on inside a marriage?  Sometimes, the partners themselves may be unsure of each other’s motivation and inner fears.  In Private Life, Jane Smiley examines the life of Margaret Early, while chronicling the history she lives through from 1883 to 1942 – from the Louisiana Purchase Exposition to the San Francisco earthquake and fire, influenza epidemics, and finally to World War II.    Despite the influence of the historical context that Smiley uses to showcase Margaret’s life, Margaret is locked in a marriage in which “their lives were mostly private…lived side by side as necessary…”

Their mothers conspire to connect 27 year-old Margaret, approaching spinsterhood, with Andrew Early, the 38 year-old socially dysfunctional eccentric scientist, who may not be as brilliant as he thinks he is; compatibility is not an issue – “part of the price to be paid.”   Margaret does not know what she has gotten into, but Smiley slowly unravels the truth for her as she follows the marriage through a number of crises.

Margaret never seems to be able to release her emotions or follow her own instincts.  At a young age, she witnessed a hanging, and her repressed feelings about the incident seem to set the tone for the rest of her life.  Her role models: a mother who has lost her sixteen year old son to the measles brought home from her husband’s patients, and her father, who kills himself after his son’s death.  She watches and waits to see what is expected, and then tries to deliver.  After a while, this wears away whoever she ever really was or could be.

In Andrew, Smiley draws the picture of the brilliant would-be academic who never quite makes it in the world.  He takes shortcuts, entitled by his view of himself as a genius.  His ideas are suspect because he cannot forego his arrogance, and he ruins his chances for collaboration and possible recognition by belittling his colleagues.  Eventually, he carries his bravado beyond acceptable boundaries, and involves Margaret.

I lost patience with Andrew far before Margaret did.  Thankfully, Smiley offers other characters to counter the heaviness of Margaret’s life – Pete, Dora, Lucy, Mrs. Kimura. They weave in and out of the story, offering a respite to life with Andrew.

Margaret continues living her life through Andrew, typing his manuscripts, driving him around, tolerating him…

“It was peculiarly painful all of a sudden to know that her friends and relatives valued her life not for anything she had done, but for what she had put up with.  It was like being told she was a dolt… And, of course, there was no help for it…that’s what knitting groups and sewing groups {and book groups} were for, wasn’t it? Commiserating about marriage…”

I wondered how long Margaret could remain in this “relentless” marriage.  Finally, she gets a “headache” and excuses herself from Andrew’s excursions, and quietly steals some time and pleasure for herself, but she still stays with him.

More of the world rolls by – the Depression, the war – and as Andrew settles into his seventies, Smiley provides some funny observations about what happens to genius men as they age: Andrew joins Margaret’s women’s card-playing group on Mondays, takes his dog to the movies, and continues to assail anyone he can with his delusional theories as he takes his daily constitutionals.  Unfortunately, he also writes letters, and one day, Margaret has a visit from the FBI – government agencies, at least Hoover’s men, were not known for their sense of humor.

Smiley uses Margaret’s lack of “daring” to think for herself and live her own life as a cautionary tale.  Although Margaret thinks only her life is affected by her dutiful silence, she does not account for how, left alone to his own devices, her husband can be dangerous.

“I should have stopped you…”

As the story ends, you can only hope Margaret will finally get on with her own life.

Reading a Jane Smiley novel is an exercise in perseverance. Like a professor who knows too much and cannot always get the basics across to her disinterested students, Smiley offers too much information, background, and emotional baggage to digest.  But all that stuffing is necessary not only to understand the characters, but also to connect with them.

Private Lives is a difficult read, but offers a wealth of possibilities for a book discussion, as long as the book group stays with the book and does not digress to Smiley’s definition of “commiseration” as the purpose of the gathering.


4 thoughts on “Private Life

  1. I didn’t realize she had a new book out. I love Jane Smiley, and will add this to my list.

    As for your other comment, I have read Joshilyn Jackson’s other books. I remember that I loved them, but I can’t for the life of me remember if they were as disturbing. She’s a great writer, though.

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