Margaret Mayfield is nearly an old maid at twenty-seven in postCivil War Missouri when she marries Captain Andrew Jackson Jefferson Early. Hes the most famous man their small town has ever produced: a naval officer and a brilliant astronomera genius who, according to the local paper, has changed the universe. Margarets mother calls the match "a piece of luck."
Margaret is a good girl who has been raised to marry, yet Andrew confounds her expectations from the moment their train leaves for his naval base in faraway California. Soon she comes to understand that his devotion to science leaves precious little room for anything, or anyone, else. When personal tragedies strike and when national crises envelop the country, Margaret stands by her husband. But as World War II approaches, Andrews obsessions take a different, darker turn, and Margaret is forced to reconsider the life she has so carefully constructed.
Private Life is a beautiful evocation of a womans inner world: of the little girl within the hopeful bride, of the young woman filled with yearning, and of the faithful wife who comes to harbor a dangerous secret. But it is also a heartbreaking portrait of marriage and the mysteries that endure even in lives lived side by side; a wondrously evocative historical panorama; and, above all, a masterly, unforgettable novel from one of our finest storytellers.
A historical novelist has two choices, to show how strange and foreign another time is, or to demonstrate that the past was actually not unlike the present. Smiley comes closer to the second path, sometimes relying on Victorian clichés to fill out her image of the nineteenth century – one character has "luxuriant" hair, another "spidery" handwriting. But the main thrust of her project is to connect the dots from Victorian times to modernity in such a way that we can see what a great gulf is being crossed (from Aether to the Atomic Age) at the same time we discover how the present is a product of the past. Andrew Early's job is to keep the Navy's chronometers on a precise, standardized time. Margaret marks time in a different way, watching and remembering. (Reviewed by Jennifer G Wilder).
Library Journal - Leslie Patterson
Not a highly dramatic page-turner but rather a subtle and thoughtful portrayal of a quiet woman's inner strength, this may especially appeal to readers who have enjoyed Marilynne Robinson's recent Gilead and Home.
Booklist - Joanne Wilkinson
Smiley casts a gimlet eye on the institution of marriage even as she offers a fascinating glimpse of a distant era.
Starred Review. Her most ferocious novel since the Pulitzer Prize-winning A Thousand Acres (1991) and every bit as good.
Financial Times - Lionel Shriver
Feminist in the best sense, Private Life examines a certain variety of marriage, a union that contemporary women would flee in a heartbeat but exactly one of a sort that legions of women in times past have endured to the grave.
Vogue - Megan O’Grady Private Life evokes the marriage between a bright but stifled woman from small-town Missouri and an astronomer whose scientific obsession—itself a fascinating window into American intellectual history—takes on a sinister cast in the years leading up to World War II.
Recent Reader Reviews
Rated of 5
by Buni Wells Tedious and Boring I struggled for days to get through this book, thinking it would have a unique or wonderful ending since the entire book was so tedious and ridiculous... It did not. Though a much recommended book, I felt sure I was missing something and even... Read More
Rated of 5
by Dorothy T. Tedious reading I found parts of this novel very tedious reading. I tried to follow the scientific theories, but couldn't, and eventually decided that it wasn't really necessary to understand them. Many of the characters are not engaging, but the story did keep... Read More
Dorothea and Casaubon, literature's most famous miserable academic couple
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.)
Casaubon appeals to Dorothea because of his intellectual seriousness. "Here was something beyond the shallows of ladies'-school literature," she reflects during her first conversation with him, "Here was a modern Augustine who united the glories of doctor and saint." She convinces herself that marriage to...
Research shows that 90% of Americans value public libraries(Dec 11 2013) According to a survey by the Pew Research Center, about 90% of Americans aged 16 and older said that the closing of their local public library would have an...