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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Pete, you’ve hardly told me anything. But Vancouver! Have you been interrogated, too? Her hand flew to her mouth, then she looked around, but no one, either on the wharf or in the other cars, was looking at them.

Pete laughed his old laugh, the easy, brave laugh that she found so irresistible now, the very laugh she had once distrusted. As he drove onto the ferry, he said, Not yet, but sometimes I do have the sense I’m being watched or followed, though when I look around I never see an extraordinarily tall, mustachioed man. No, darling, it’s much simpler than that. I’m busted again.

The tall, mustachioed man would be Andrew.

She tried to adopt a bit of Pete’s teasing tone, but she was alarmed. You always said armaments were a sure thing!

Not sure enough. Some innovations tempted me. I should have stuck to mere bullets. I don’t know what I should have stuck to, perhaps.

But I’ve found a position in Vancouver.

As what?

Now the ferry engine rumbled, and then they backed away from the wharf. The car shivered around them.

As a butler. It might be nice, just keeping order. I think I’ll enjoy it.

Do you remember my friend Bibikova, from St. Petersburg? She married a man named Yerchikovsky. It’s their grandson I’ll work for. I’ll be an old family retainer. Vassily, they think I am.

He told her this as if she wouldn’t care, as if nothing about it was of more than idle interest to her. The noise of the engine swelled again, and then the ferry docked with a bump, and they drove off it.

It was not quite three when they got to her house. As soon as they opened the door, she saw the telegram on the floor, where it had landed when the delivery boy pushed it through the slot. She picked it up. Stella was barking in the backyard.

Pete took one of her hands. Let’s have a look at the pictures. I would like to see the ones Sei did for you. He meant Mr. Kimura. She took off her hat and set it on the hall table. The pictures were in the closet. She got them out, then went into the kitchen and turned on the gas under the kettle.

When she came back, Pete was standing in front of the rabbit. The animal looked nearly vaporous today, a rabbit made of mist crouched down beside stalks of luminous green bamboo. The bamboo reminded her more vividly of Mr. Kimura than the rabbit did—she remembered the exact way that his fingers held the brush and seemed to press the leaves of the bamboo out of it, one by one. That was decades ago now. Mr. Kimura had been dead for two years. They were all so old. Pete set aside the rabbit, and there were the coots. The rabbit was a sketch that Mr. Kimura had given her, but the coots she had commissioned. He had painted it on the north end of the island, not far from where they got on the 37 that very morning, though she hadn’t been there in years. Now she gazed at the curve of the far edge of the pond against the higher curve of the hillside. Far to the left, a solitary chick swam so fast that he made ripples. To the right, the other chicks clustered together, picking bits of things off the surface of the water. Their lives had been so brief that they never even lost their red heads, but Mr. Kimura had caught their friskiness perfectly. Then she could hardly see the painting for the tears in her eyes. Pete, don’t go away!

He put his arm around her, squeezed hard. He knew, of course, that she adored him, or admired him, or whatever it was. He was one of those sorts of men that women were wiser to stay away from, men who took an interest in women, and observed them, and knew what they were thinking.

Darling, I should have been a different person. But I’m not.

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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