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.
“Masterly. . . . In this precise, compelling depiction of a singular woman, Smiley creates an inner world as expansive as her character’s outer world is constrained.” —The New Yorker (June 14 & 21, 2010)
“Private Life is a powerful, challenging and, ultimately, fierce work of fiction, a masterpiece of a novel that stands with the best of Smiley’s work. It spans more than half a century, from the early 1880s to the attack on Pearl Harbor, revealing–not just in the details of everyday life but even in its style and narrative–the changes in the US during that time. . . . Private Life reminds us that, for many, that holy sacrament was, and continues to be, a matter of solemn duty, where the strongest or most generous of the partners relinquishes all hope of self-realization in order to perpetuate a tired and unrealistic institution.” —John Burnside, The Guardian (UK) (May 22, 2010)
“A brilliant study of a woman whose limited freedoms circumvent the Suffragette movement at the beginning of the 20th century, and predate the second-wave feminism of the 1970s. . . . A romantic [backdrop] of astronomical mysteries and the astonishing scientific discovery of ‘double stars’ which whirl in tandem . . . frames deep family discontents and marital dysfunctions among [Private Life’s] characters, who live like fallen beings on earth in the lonely expanse of rural Missouri. The double stars, which spin uncontrollably on their axes, become a sinister motif as Margaret and Andrew’s marriage progresses through the early 20th century, leaving both spinning in their own adjacent inner worlds. . . . ” —Arifa Akbar, The Independent (UK) (May 21, 2010)
“Smiley roars [in this] scarifying tale of stifling marriage and traumatizing losses. Bookish, shrewdly observant Margaret Mayfield discomfits most men in turn-of-the-20th-century Missouri, but she needs to get married. . . . The best bookish Margaret can do is Andrew Early, whose checkered intellectual career is about to take him to a naval observatory in California. He’s graceless and self-absorbed, but perhaps it’s enough that he and Margaret share a fascination with ‘the strange effervescence of the impending 20th century.’ It isn’t. During the years 1905 to 1942, we see Margaret increasingly infuriated by the subordination of her life to Andrew’s all-consuming quest to find order in [the] universe. . . . Their disparate responses to the death of Andrew’s mother in the 1906 earthquake and of their infant son (the latter among the saddest pages Smiley has ever written) begin Margaret’s alienation. . . . The novel closes with Margaret at last asserting herself, but that hardly makes up for a lifetime of emotions suppressed and chances missed. Rage and bitterness may not be the most comfortable human emotions, but depicting them takes Smiley’s formidable artistry to its highest pitch. Her most ferocious novel since the Pulitzer Prize–winning A Thousand Acres, and every bit as good.” —Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
“A subtle and thoughtful portrayal of a woman’s inner strength, [Private Life] may especially appeal to readers who have enjoyed Marilynne Robinson’s recent Gilead and Home. . . . In 1905 Missouri, quiet 27-year-old Margaret Mayfield marries Capt. Andrew Jackson Jefferson Early, a naval officer and an astronomer who is considered a genius and a little odd. By the time they make their way by train to their new life in California, the reader understands that Captain Early is actually somewhat crazy in his obsessions. . . Their lives together grow more troubled [and] Smiley reminds us how difficult it was for all but the boldest women to extract themselves from suffocating life situations 100 years ago. While dealing with intimate matters, this novel also has an epic sweep, moving from Missouri in the 1880s to the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, up to the Japanese internment camps of World War II, with the scenes from Margaret’s Missouri childhood reminiscent of Willa Cather.” —Leslie Patterson, Library Journal
“The Pulitzer Prize–winning author offers a cold-eyed view of the compromises required by marriage while also providing an intimate portrait of life in the Midwest and West during the years 1883-1942. By the time she reaches the age of 27, Margaret Mayfield has known a lot of tragedy in her life. . . . Her strong-minded mother, Lavinia, knows that her daughter’s prospects for marriage are dim and takes every opportunity to encourage Margaret’s friendship with eccentric scientist Andrew Early. . . . As Smiley covers in absorbing detail both private and world events . . . she keeps at the center of the narrative Margaret’s growing realization that she has married a madman and her subsequent attempts to deal with her marriage. . . . Smiley casts a gimlet eye on the institution of marriage even as she offers a fascinating glimpse of a distant era.” —Joanne Wilkinson, Booklist
“A chilling tale, quietly absorbing. . . . Though the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair, the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, and the jailing of Japanese-Americans in World War II all figure prominently in Private Life, the title is right for a novel about spouses who grow further apart each year.” —Craig Seligman, Bloomberg News (June 2, 2010)
“A powerful turn-of-the-last-century American novel in both chronology and style. . . . Smiley has tried her hand at historical novels before but, at bottom, she has always been a master chronicler of the climate changes in relationships—I think especially of her great, great novella, The Age of Grief. Here, her compelling story about a long marriage has an Edith Wharton, Henry James feel of sinister delicacy about it. . . . A wistful and beautifully observed novel.” —Maureen Corrigan, NPR’s “Fresh Air” (May 26, 2010)
“With its quietly accruing power, [Private Life is] the kind of book that puts the lie to those who claim that great novelists produce their best work early and spend the rest of their lives gilding the lily. . . . The bulk of Private Life is devoted to the ways, large and small, that Margaret’s marriage shapes and circumscribes her life. It’s a remarkable portrait not only of Margaret but of her husband . . . Private Life is an unselfconsciously historical novel, in that the backdrops and events–in Missouri and then California–are never obtrusive yet fill every crevice of the story. . . . As in Marilynne Robinson’s luminous novel Gilead, Private Life’s protagonist is slow to act, a victim of self-limitations whose most dramatic events are internal and whose emotional wounds seem largely self-inflated. . . . Smiley has created in Margaret Mayfield an enduring character so faultlessly realized that her failures and self-doubt, her occasional small pleasures, and her moments of painful self-awareness feel inevitable and at times heart-wrenching. She is a woman of her times who scarcely struggles to rise above them–the kind of character who often gets shuffled off, in fiction’s pages, to inhabit a bit part. In the pages of Private Life she is given as full and honest and sympathetic an existence as she–as any of us–deserves.” —Sarah L. Courteau, Chicago Tribune
“Masterly. . . . In this precise, compelling depiction of a singular woman, Smiley creates an inner world as expansive as her character’s outer world is constrained.” —The New Yorker
“Smiley’s best novel yet . . . [a] heartbreaking, bitter, and gorgeous story of a woman’s life stunted by marriage . . . Nothing is confined about this ambitious novel itself, however. Smiley makes dazzling and meticulous use of her historical scope; the Louisiana Purchase Exposition, the San Francisco earthquake, the World Wars, the influenza epidemic, the Japanese internment, the harnessing of electricity, the evolution of the automobile and the movies, Hearst and Einstein–all are gradually incorporated into her plot and themes. Even more admirable is her thoroughly convincing rendition of intimate details from the perspective of another era–the feeling of riding a bicycle when it was a new sensation, the subtle yet powerful machinations of a mother and future mother-in-law in arranging a marriage, the commonplace expectation of children’s deaths.” —The Atlantic Monthly
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Jane Smiley is the author of numerous novels, including A Thousand Acres, which was awarded the Pulitzer Prize, as well as four works of nonfiction. In 2001 she was inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Letters. She received the PEN USA Lifetime Achievement Award for Literature in 2006. She lives in Northern California.