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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PROLOGUE

1942

Stella, who had been sleeping in her basket in the corner, leapt up barking and then slipped out the bedroom door. Margaret heard her race down the stairs. It was early; fog still pressed against the two bedroom windows.

Margaret sat up, but then she lay back on her pillow, dejected—she must have missed a telegram, and now her husband, Andrew, had returned. She woke up a bit more and listened for the opening of the front door. But, no, there hadn’t been a telegram—she remembered that she’d looked for one. Had she not locked the front door? She stilled her breathing and listened. With the war on, all sorts of characters crammed Vallejo these days. Suddenly a little frightened, she slid out of bed and stealthily pulled on her robe, then opened the door of her room a bit wider and crept out far enough to peer over the banister. There was the top of a head, dark, not Andrew’s, and by the dull light of the hall windows, a houndstooth jacket. A figure bent over to pet Stella, and Stella wagged her tail. This was reassuring. Margaret took a deep breath. Now the figure stood up, looked up, and smiled. He said, Put your clothes on, darling, we’re going for a ride.

She was speechless with pleasure at seeing Pete, though he seemed to have walked right in—did that mean she had left the door unlocked, because how would he get a key? But getting ready took her no time, she made sure of that. She only brushed out her hair and redid her bun so that some of the gray was hidden, then got out her best blue suit with the white piqué collar and her last pair of hose and her nicest shoes. She put on the black straw hat with a half-veil, and she looked neat, she thought, though no better than that—at her age, you could not hope to look pretty, and she had never been beautiful. When she reached the bottom of the stairs, Pete smiled and kissed her on the cheek. She confined Stella in the kitchen and made sure the dog door to the backyard was unlocked. Then he led her to his car, which she hadn’t seen, a Buick, prosperous gray and very clean. She said, Where are we going?

Somewhere you’ve been before. But that was all he would tell her.

Margaret had heard nothing from Pete in four months, not since their last agitated phone call two days after Pearl Harbor. Before that, she had seen him every couple of weeks. In the interim, either he had gotten old, or she had forgotten how old he was, because now, as they drove and she glanced at him, she saw that, yes, his hair was dark (that had never been natural), but his face was more wrinkled than hers, and spotted here and there. His teeth were yellow and a little crooked. It crossed her mind that maybe Cossacks weren’t meant to live this long. Then she noticed her own hands, with their wrinkles and spots, and wondered what he must think of her. She would be sixty-four this year, and he would be—well, she didn’t know for sure. But she adored him anyway, with a feeling that defied these meditations on the passage of time (did she adore him, or simply admire him, or how else would she describe her feelings was a question she often pondered). She looked at him again—square in the jaw, hawkish in the nose, kind, mysterious, not like any other man she had known. He didn’t ask her about Andrew, and she didn’t tell him that Andrew had gone to Washington or ask him where he himself had been all these months.

War again meant Vallejo was bursting, cars and trucks backed up and honking everywhere. When they got out of town—onto the 37, around the north shore of the bay—traffic was still slow, but the sun came out and the car warmed up. They made idle conversation—How was she feeling? When did he get the Buick? The weather had been sunny lately, hadn’t it?—but she understood that important topics were to wait until the purpose of their trip was revealed. And the drive was especially pleasant because she had not been out of town, and hardly out of the house, since the attack. Everywhere, the grass was thick and green from the winter rains, and the air was extra bright because of the way that the sunlight shot through and was reflected off fluttering veils of fog. When they turned south, toward the city, the mountains seemed to almost impinge on the highway, they were so black and forbidding, but the waters of the bay seemed to sparkle, and then the fog receded, and they were on the Golden Gate Bridge. The sun shone on it; the cables swept upward to two peaks, and the road rose and curved between them. In the middle of the bridge, the waters of the Pacific spread away in two dazzling directions, deep dark blue, but ablaze with light. And then they were over, and the verges of the highway were green again until well into the city. Pete turned south on Van Ness and kept going. Houses and warehouses gave way to fields and marshes, and then houses and warehouses resumed. When he turned in at the entrance to Tanforan, she was pleased for a moment, and then she remembered that Tanforan was no longer a racetrack but a relocation center. It dawned on her. She said, Pete! You found them! She reached across the seat and took Pete’s hand. He gave hers a squeeze.

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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