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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  • First Published:
    May 2010, 336 pages
    Paperback:
    Jun 2011, 336 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Jennifer G Wilder

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Print Excerpt


Naoko nodded.

All night?

I don’t mind. But I can’t keep warm in here. I go back to my place and warm up and then come here.

If they have nothing for her, then . . .

But she didn’t go on. In fact, Margaret doubted whether Mrs. Kimura could survive being carried anywhere on the stretcher. She
rubbed her hands together. When they were warm, and Naoko had gotten up to straighten her mother’s covers, she took Mrs. Kimura’s hand. It was small, thin, and cold. She tried to hold it as gently as she could and to impart a little warmth to it. After what seemed like a long time, she felt the dying woman squeeze her hand, just a bit. Then Mrs. Kimura gasped again and closed her eyes. Pete leaned down and kissed her gently, once on each cheek, his lips just brushing the skin, and then it was time to go. Naoko accompanied them to the door of the infirmary. Pete said, I brought you the things you asked for. I don’t know if I can come back.

Naoko nodded.


THEY walked for a minute or two in silence. That was my barn, over there. Barn O. I enjoyed those days.

This is a terrible thing to do.

Yes, says the American in me.

What does the Russian in you say?

I hope they don’t get shot.

What about you?

I won’t get shot.

I don’t know how to think about any of it, frankly, not any of it. If only the Japanese hadn’t attacked Pearl Harbor! What do they want? What were they thinking?

Darling, they were thinking, Who do those Russians think they are? Why do you find those English fellows everywhere you turn? What makes the French act so superior? And look at the Americans! Such a bunch of primitives! A pack of apes in trousers, telling us what to do! That is what they were thinking.

They got to the car. One of the guards was staring at them. Pete smiled and waved at him. The man kept his weapon down. Pete unlocked and opened her door, then went around and got in the driver’s side. It was now quite chilly, and they didn’t open the windows. As he pressed the starter, she said, I put all my pictures away, I couldn’t stand them anymore. I used to love them so, but now . . .

They backed out of their spot and turned down the line of cars. Darling, there are whole categories of pictures that you never even
looked at. Do you remember any of the scowling samurai we saw? With their teeth bared and their eyebrows lowered?

Yes, but—

Those are traditional Japanese pictures, too.

I didn’t like those.

They drove out of the gate, waving innocently at the two guards in their little cabin, and then they made their way to Camino Real, and turned north. Pete said, What is the lesson to be learned?

Margaret flared up. It was Andrew—

But Pete stopped her again. I don’t blame Andrew.

But he—

Pete raised her hand to his lips. It was clear he wouldn’t talk about that.

She felt terribly cold inside her neat suit and her heavy tweed coat. Her hat was still on her head. She unpinned it and set it on the back seat, then shoved her hands in her pockets, but there was no way to get warm. She did not even shiver. Pressed down by her heavy blankets, Kiku Kimura would be too weak to shiver, Margaret thought.

They drove on in silence, this time crossing to the East Bay and passing Berkeley and Oakland, where they were in the sunlight. San Francisco, so beautiful in the morning, was now gray and invisible. They sat in the line of cars, waiting for the ferry at Benicia. Have I told you that I’m moving to Vancouver?

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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