Jane Smiley's characters are what make Private Life
a novel to read more than once. Her style is not showy you might call her a "good plain American prose stylist" the way you would call someone a "good plain cook." Her plotting is not full of confusing turns or big reveals or romantic yielding. But her characters are masterful constructions, as intelligent and surprising as real people can be.
Although Private Life
isn't being marketed as a "retelling" of George Eliots Middlemarch
, the way A Thousand Acres
was billed as a modern King Lear
, Smiley is clearly drawing on the legacy of George Eliot here. (Eliot hasnt come up in the publicity surrounding Private Life
Beyond the Book
Margaret and Andrew of Private Life
are cut from the same cloth as George Eliot's classic unhappy spouses, Dorothea Brooke and the Reverend Edward Casaubon. Eliot's Middlemarch
was published in 1874, just a few years before Smiley's character, Margaret Mayfield, is born.
Dorothea Brooke is an intelligent and idealistic young woman, the kind of girl who didn't have a lot of options in early nineteenth-century England (as Eliot spells out). She is just 19 when she meets Casaubon who is almost fifty. (Margaret and Early are a bit closer in age when they marry she's 27 and he's 38.)