Saturday, September 5, 2015

Private Life, by Jane Smiley

This book is a novel about Margaret Mayfield Early's life, spanning the era from 1883, when she was a young girl, to 1942. Her parents remembered vividly the American Civil War, and she lived through the Spanish-American War and World Wars I and II. (To be honest, World War II had just begun when Private Life ends, but Margaret is still strong and healthy.)

At 27 years, Margaret Mayfield is not beautiful nor especially talented. Her younger sisters marry and begin rearing families. It seems that Margaret is destined to remain an old maid - until Captain Andrew Early comes along. He doesn't exactly sweep her off her feet; his interest in her seems amazingly cool and indifferent, but she accepts his proposal. He is of a respectable family; his mother is a friend of her mother and he is always well groomed, and not unattractive. He has written a book concerning his theories of the universe, which has caught everyone's attention. It is only later, much later, that Margaret discovers that he has also caught unfavorable attention from his superiors and others at the university where he taught, and was forced to leave suddenly.

Immediately after their marriage, Andrew and Margaret move to California from Missouri, where Margaret has lived all her life. Taking an interest in her new surroundings, making friends and joining women's groups, Margaret is not homesick or bored. Time passes, and their hopes for a large family of strong, lively sons is thwarted. She grows less enchanted with her husband, as unsettling truths are slowly revealed, and his overbearing personality becomes more pronounced. She finds her time at home alone, when he is at work or engrossed in his projects, are a relief.

Margaret's old friend Dora (her sister's sister-in-law) has remained a busy, single career woman, traveling all over the world as a newspaper reporter. Although it is never expressed overtly, it seems that Margaret is envious of Dora's freedom. Although, actually Margaret is surprisingly free to come and go as she pleases, for a woman of her time. Her husband purchased an automobile, but insisted that she, not he, be the one to learn to drive it. She roams all over her small city and the county, and into San Francisco, observing nature and visiting friends which include a Japanese family and a Russian ex-patriot.

The Prologue and the Epilogue take in place in 1942, after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. These sections deal with the aftermath, especially the detainment and internment of Japanese families, Margaret's friends particularly.

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