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.
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, dejectedshe 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 hadnt been a telegramshe remembered that shed 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 Andrews, and by the dull light of the ...
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).
Full Review (1041 words).
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," ...
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