Excerpt from Private Life by Jane Smiley, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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Private Life

By Jane Smiley

Private Life
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  • Hardcover: May 2010,
    336 pages.
    Paperback: Jun 2011,
    336 pages.

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But, Pete, what has been happening? Where have they been? Where have you been?

They’ve been in jail, but not in San Francisco. That was the thing that threw me for weeks. They were in San Francisco for a couple of nights, then they were sent to San Mateo, and then to Santa Cruz County. That’s where they were until they were released and sent here. I couldn’t have seen them there, even if I’d found them, since I’m not kin, but when I heard about this place, I got in touch with my friend and persuaded him to keep a lookout for them.

When did they get here?

About ten days ago.

Oh, Pete! This place!

It is one step better than jail. But Kiku got sick in jail, and she’s only gotten worse here. He sighed. Now they were at Barn S, then T. She could see the training track, dusty and unused, with the practice starting gate sitting in the middle of the sand. They found the infirmary.

Pete opened the door and they peeked in. What they saw was not encouraging—a large, drafty space with a cocrete floor and cracked and partly boarded-over windows, in which fifteen or twenty beds had been hastily arranged at one end along with some cabinets. Most of the beds were full, and around most of them milled what looked like worried relatives, in jackets and sweaters (Tanforan was always chilly, given that it was in San Bruno), and nurses in white dresses, also wearing jackets. Two men who might have been doctors were talking together next to one of the beds.

Margaret peered at everyone, and finally recognized Naoko, whose hair had become truly gray. She was wearing a coat, sitting beside one of the beds, and leaning toward the patient, who must have been Kiku Kimura, who was heaped with covers against the chill. Naoko looked up and saw them, then rose and came toward them. Pete followed Margaret into the huge room. She felt her hat slip, and reached up to pin it, sorry now that she had worn such a ridiculous item, sorry that she had gazed into the mirror and indulged her vanity.

Naoko was full of smiles, but she looked drawn and anxious. She took each of their hands and thanked them for coming as if they had done her a great favor. She led them to the bed.

Margaret would not have recognized Mrs. Kimura. She lay flat on her back with her chin tilted upward and her mouth open. She did not have her teeth in, so her mouth looked sunken and pitiful. Her hair was smoothed back away from her forehead, and her eyes were closed. The covers were up to her chin, but one thin hand poked out to the side, and Naoko took it as soon as they got to the bed. It made Margaret shiver with cold just to look at her—she couldn’t imagine that Kiku had enough body heat to keep herself warm even under such a pile. When she leaned down to say hello, she could hear that Mrs. Kimura’s breath was labored. Pneumonia.

Naoko invited her to sit in the chair and perched herself on the edge of the bed. Pete stood nearby. Naoko took her mother’s hand again. She said, She told me herself, when we were down in Santa Cruz and she got a cough there with a fever, that she would get pneumonia from it, and she would die, but that was a month ago. By the time we got here, I thought she would prove herself wrong, but the second night, she coughed all night, sitting up and disturbing our neighbors. There was nothing I could do for her. She glanced over at the doctors. They don’t have anything for us. She smoothed her mother’s forehead. If she were me and I were her, I know there would be some herbs she would gather or a tea she would make. Oh dear. I . . . The doctors were now going from bed to bed, but they didn’t approach Mrs. Kimura.

Can they make her more comfortable at least? said Pete.

Excerpted from Private Life by Jane Smiley. Copyright © 2010 by Jane Smiley. Excerpted by permission of Knopf. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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