'Private Life': Jane Smiley's quiet novel of a Midwestern girl's odyssey
Jane Smiley's new novel, "Private Life," traces the life of a Midwestern woman from a Missouri childhood in the 1880s to a life of diminished expectations in California. Smiley reads Thursday at the Bellevue Regional Library and Friday at Third Place Books in Lake Forest Park.
Special to The Seattle Times
Jane SmileyThe author of "Private Life" will discuss her book at 7 p.m. Thursday at the Bellevue Regional Library, 1111 110th Ave. N.E., Bellevue; sponsored by the University Book Store (206-634-3400 or www.ubookstore.com). She will read at 1 p.m. Friday at Third Place Books, 17171 Bothell Way N.E., Lake Forest Park; free (206-366-3333 or www.thirdplacebooks.com).
"In those days all stories ended with the wedding" is the quote from writer Rose Wilder Lane that serves as an epigraph for Jane Smiley's latest novel, "Private Life" (Knopf, 318 pp., $26.95). "Those days" are the later-19th-century Midwest, where Lane (daughter of Laura Ingalls Wilder, author of "Little House on the Prairie") grew up and where Smiley's heroine, Margaret, spent her girlhood before marrying and, a few years after the century's turn, moved West.
But "Private Life" is only just beginning with the wedding, which changes Margaret's life in ways this quiet woman could not have predicted. The book's structure — told in sections titled by years — begins with a 1942 prologue, circles back to Margaret's Missouri childhood in the early 1880s, continues through her married life in California, and ends in 1942 again. The prologue takes on new meaning; characters who were once strangers are now people we know.
Smiley, a Pulitzer Prize winner for "A Thousand Acres," takes a melancholy, pensive tone here: Margaret's fate is anything but happily-ever-after. Marrying at a relatively late age for her time (27), she hoped her husband Andrew's nervousness upon proposing was "love, a form of electricity." The couple travels to Vallejo, Calif., for Andrew's work: A naval officer and astronomer, he takes charge of the observatory on the Mare Island naval base, while Margaret, puzzled by her new identity (she "had no idea who she was anymore, since she was no longer an old maid in a small Missouri town"), busies herself with neighbors and setting up a home.
But the pleasures of family life will not be hers; even motherhood is hers to enjoy only briefly. (In a haunting description of maternal love, Smiley writes that it was for Margaret "a bodily transformation. It was as if [the child] were a dye and she was white wool. Looking at him and holding him dyed her through and through.") Soon, Andrew's courtly eccentricity and scientific curiosity transform into something approaching madness. Margaret's life is more than private; she is, against all expectations, alone.
Against the stark backdrop of Margaret's unsmiling gaze, we watch history march by: the 1905 San Francisco earthquake; the emergence of new careers for women (depicted in the lively character of Margaret's brother-in-law's sister Dora, a globe-trotting journalist who sends cheery letters describing, for example, Ezra Pound extemporizing a poem for her in London); the years of World War I, when "death was all around them"; the fondness Margaret develops for her Japanese neighbors, only to see them sent to an internment camp by the early '40s.
Smiley's eye is keen, and the book's historical pageant is often mesmerizing and always elegantly composed — and yet, "Private Life" leaves you thinking about its smaller events rather than its large ones. It is, at heart, about the death of hope; about how a woman trying to make the best of things learns that there's nothing better waiting. Marriage, as the ladies of Margaret's knitting groups perpetually note, can be a trial; here, it's a quiet tragedy — a place where, to paraphrase Lane, Margaret's story ends.
Moira Macdonald is the movie critic
for The Seattle Times.
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