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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Book Reviewed by:
Jennifer G Wilder

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Naoko shook her head and said again, They have nothing.

Margaret looked around. At the end of the room opposite to the beds were tables and boxes. She saw that the “infirmary” was also being used as a storage shed. I was wondering so about you. I went to your apartment in San Francisco. It must have been the morning after you left. I can’t imagine what you’ve been through.

Naoko lifted her chin and closed her eyes. The interrogations were the worst. Where were our notes on plans for sabotage? Was it my mother, in her travels, who carried messages between various saboteurs? Were we the ones who planted the tomato field that pointed like an arrow at the airfield, or did the farmer himself think of that? We had no idea what they were talking about, but they posed the questions so that they were impossible to answer. How was Lester receiving his information that he was then sending to Joe? Through whom was Lester communicating his information to Joe? Had the Japanese military been in contact with Joe before he went to Japan? Had I ever met Mr. Masaoko? Was my mother the go-between? Was I the go-between? Whose idea was it for Joe to move to Japan and enlist in the army there? My mother was so nervous with these interrogations that it made her sick, and then they asked if she was pretending to be ill so that she could get to a hospital and communicate with her contacts! All of this she said in a quiet voice with lowered eyes. Pete kept looking at her, and tears started running down Margaret’s cheeks. And then they came to us one day and said that all the Japs were going to camps and they were finished with us, so they sent us here. They didn’t charge us with anything, but they said they retained the account books I was doing for my clients in Japantown, just in case there were coded messages in them. So I am still under suspicion. It was only in that “retained” that Margaret sensed the old, independent Naoko she had known now for thirty-some  years.

Pete said, What about Lester?

Naoko raised her hand, but gently, so as to not shake the bed. They still have him. He’s charged with illegal gambling. We knew he was doing that. My mother tried to talk him out of that more than once, but what else did he have in his life? The man he worked for was named Rossi, Luca Rossi, and they haven’t charged him with anything. He just went out and found himself some other runners. He told Lester, You Japs are going to lose all you got anyway, so you’re not so good for business anymore.

Pete looked unsurprised.

Mrs. Kimura gave a strangled gasp, and her eyes fluttered but didn’t open. Margaret knew that it was Andrew, her own husband, who had killed her, that Pete knew it, too, and that if Pete knew it Naoko knew it. She said, I am so sorry.

Mrs. Kimura began to cough, weakly, and Naoko helped her sit up a little more. After the coughing subsided, she gave some harsh cries, and then her eyes opened. Her gaze fell on Pete, and then on Margaret. With great and visible effort she assembled her dignity, and finally she smiled. She whispered, You come.

I would have come much sooner if I’d known where you were.

We were in jail. Then, after a long pause, I didn’t know. Margaret thought she must mean that she didn’t know why.

You shouldn’t have been.

Mrs. Kimura said, Lester . . . But her voice died. Margaret exchanged a glance with Pete, then she said, I’m sure Lester had nothing to do with it. Lester is a good man. He is. It was— But Pete’s hand clamped down on her shoulder, forbidding her confession.
The doctors still did not come near. Margaret said to Naoko, Are you with her all day?

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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