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Summary and book reviews of Private Life by Jane Smiley

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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About this Book

Book Summary

A riveting new novel from the Pulitzer Prize–winner that traverses the intimate landscape of one woman’s life, from the 1880s to World War II.

Margaret Mayfield is nearly an old maid at twenty-seven in post–Civil War Missouri when she marries Captain Andrew Jackson Jefferson Early. He’s the most famous man their small town has ever produced: a naval officer and a brilliant astronomer—a genius who, according to the local paper, has changed the universe. Margaret’s 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, Andrew’s 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 woman’s 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.

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 ...

Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!
About This Guide

The questions, discussion topics, and reading list that follow are intended to enhance your reading group's discussion of Private Life, a riveting new novel from Pulitzer Prize winner Jane Smiley that traverses the intimate landscape of one woman's life, from the 1880s to World War II.
Reader's Guide

  1. How would you describe this novel in one sentence?
  2. Smiley's epigraph for the book is a quote from Rose Wilder Lane. Why do you think she chose this particular line?
  3. What is the purpose of the prologue? How did it color your interpretation of what followed?
  4. Over the course of this novel—which stretches across six decades of American history—how does the role of women ...

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Reviews

BookBrowse

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 (886 words).

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Media Reviews
Publishers Weekly

...a slow-moving historical antiromance.

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.

Kirkus Reviews

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.

Reader Reviews
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 me...   Read More

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 reread...   Read More

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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.)

George EliotCasaubon appeals to Dorothea because of his intellectual seriousness. "Here was something beyond the shallows of ladies'-school literature," ...

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