Friday, October 11, 2013

BOOK REVIEW: Private Life by Jane Smiley

Jane Smiley is an incredible writer. I remember being awed by A Thousand Acres, even though it’s been a good twenty years since I’ve read the Pulitzer Prize-winning book. Being the historical fiction fan that I am, I loved the epic tragedy Greenlanders even more. (I was, I have to admit, a little disappointed by Moo.) But it’s been awhile since I’ve read Smiley’s work. When Private Life came out a couple of years ago, I thought the premise sounded interesting. It’s historical, set in the late 1800's through WWII. It’s literary. Character driven. I bought the book. Still, it never leaped off the shelf for me to read. Something else always appealed to me more. To inspire me, I chose it as one of my TBR pile challenge books.

It’s a beautifully written book. However, Jane Smiley does not do cheery.

Margaret Mayfield is the downtrodden heroine of this novel. The daughter of a somewhat overbearing Southern physician, Margaret suffers the death of her brothers during her childhood followed by the suicide of her father. Afterward, her mother seems to gain strength–a strength of purpose to see her daughters safely married off. Margaret’s livelier and lovelier sisters achieve the goal but Margaret lacks social skills.

At the nearly unmarriageable age of twenty-seven, Margaret has a stroke of good luck. She is reintroduced to a local hero of sorts, Captain Andrew Jackson Early, a renowned astronomer and naval officer. After a slow and somewhat halting courtship, Captain Early proposes. They are married and move to California where he is stationed.

There were hints before the marriage that Captain Early was not all he was represented to be, but Margaret wanted to believe in him. She wanted to be married to him. Or perhaps it was that she was expected to be married to someone and he seemed to be such a good catch.

The novel details the disaster of their marriage. Margaret has no choice but to be a supportive wife. But he is an impossible man to support. Obsessed with his scientific endeavors, he is arrogant and bullying. And while Margaret, for a time, has to believe that he has been misunderstood and mistreated by his peers, she is forced to recognize at last that he is a charlatan. And still, she has to support him even as he becomes unhinged and his actions have devastating consequences .

The book is beautifully detailed. The characters are painted in an achingly realistic way. Margaret is so horribly trapped in her time and place that it’s difficult to see a way out for her. Sadly, it isn’t clear if any of the other characters are any happier than she is.

Private Life is a quietly intense book about bitter disappointment, a life of regret.

And I have two more books to go in my TBR pile challenge, hosted by Roof Beam Reader.

1 comment:

  1. As a fan of historical fiction, I can't believe I haven't read Jane Smiley yet. Thank you for the wonderful review and for adding to my (longish) TBR list! ~Sally (Classic Children's Books)