Long before she was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for her brilliant, Lear-inspired novel, A Thousand Acres, Jane Smiley was winning admirers for her pitch-perfect stories and novellas. Collections entitled Ordinary Love & Good Will, and The Age of Grief were concise and intimate portraits of family drama, mesmerizing in their quiet intensity.
Since then, Smiley has been both prolific and expansive, but in Private Life, she is working her magic on a much larger, indeed an epic, landscape.
Using the narrative focal point of a Midwestern woman whose distinction appears limited to being the wife of an eccentric “genius,” Smiley examines American values as they tilt and swerve through the turn of the twentieth century and toward the complicated tensions of World War II. As Margaret Mayfield of St. Louis, Missouri, child of the 1880s, becomes the bride of Captain Andrew Jackson Jefferson Early, and moves with him to San Francisco, her perspective widens to take in the newly vast sweep of the United States.
A mostly dutiful, though childless, wife, she supports her husband’s increasingly manic fascinations with esoteric science, keeping her growing fears about his mental health to herself. In stark contrast is her friend Dora Bell, also from St. Louis, yet fiercely determined to immerse herself in wide adventures in Europe, reporting from Spain at the height of the Civil War.
Pete Krizenko, enigmatic and irresistible, represents yet another vital link to the “public life” Margaret seems to believe she must avoid. Nevertheless, her tentative steps beyond the threshold of Captain Early’s house eventually lead Margaret to intriguing encounters with multigenerational Japanese immigrants.
Although her slow awakenings are primarily personal—involving her “private life”—her recognition of the stakes involved in the internment of Japanese civilians is what brings this novel to its most panoramic subject matter. That being said, Smiley’s writerly gifts are most effective in small, revealing moments such as this emblematic bit of narcissism: “Andrew had not yet purchased a bed large enough for both of them—it was as if, until he saw both of them in the room, the need for such a bed had not occurred to him.”
Ultimately, Private Life is a reminder of the strange attraction and antagonism between those like Captain Early, perpetually turning their gaze toward the cosmos, and those like Margaret, who thinks to herself: “A wife could know that her husband was thoroughly wrong, but the last thing on earth she could do was say so.”
When this difference of perspective becomes a matter of life and death for people she has come to love and respect far more than her own husband, Margaret, “invaded again by the universe,” has to reconsider the meaning of marriage altogether.