Book Review: 'Private Life' By Jane Smiley — The Demands Of A Loveless Marriage Private Life, the new novel by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Jane Smiley, centers around the marriage between a small-town girl and an eccentric astronomer in the first years of the 20th century.


Book Reviews

Smiley's 'Life': The Demands Of A Loveless Marriage

Private Life
Private Life
By Jane Smiley
Hardcover, 336 pages
List price: $26.95

Read An Excerpt

Jane Smiley's leisurely new novel Private Life covers nearly six decades, from 1883 to 1942, a historic period when technological innovations brought the country from a relatively slow-paced life to the dawn of the nuclear age. This time of intellectual and technological ferment is the backdrop to Smiley's subtle and thorough portrait of the toxic nature of the institution of marriage. Smiley's epigram sets the stage: "In those days all stories ended with the wedding."

Margaret Mayfield, the narrator, is the eldest daughter of a doctor in small-town Missouri. By the time she is 8, her two older brothers have died, and her distraught father has committed suicide. Her once sickly mother, now energized, moves Margaret and her two younger sisters back to her father's farm.

There, Lavinia Mayfield trains her daughters to be wives and mothers. In a lengthy middle section of the novel, in which the younger daughters grow up and marry, Smiley captures the unhurried rhythms of 19th-century America. Margaret reads Dickens, Horatio Alger and Kate Chopin, sews, takes long walks, and makes jams and cordials. Her first bicycle ride is a revelation: "Riding a bicycle was living life at a much faster pace, and very stimulating."

Finally, at 27, Margaret marries Captain Andrew Early, 34, an astronomer who has returned to his hometown under a cloud of scandal. The two move to the Mare Island naval station near Vallejo, Calif., and Margaret attempts to follow her mother's lessons: "A wife must only do as she's told for the first year," and, "Habit proves stronger than passion."

Margaret is reminiscent of the independent-minded protagonist in Smiley's 1999 novel, The All-True Travels and Adventures of Lidie Newton, which is set in the 1850s and explores a new marriage on the prairie and the daily complexities of the antebellum era. But Lidie Newton's marriage is vital and loving in contrast to Margaret's loveless, childless union. And Margaret lacks the spunk to keep herself from being gradually suffocated by the passivity the female role of her time requires.

Jane Smiley's 1992 novel A Thousand Acres won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction. She is also the author of Moo and Ten Days in the Hills. Mark Bennington hide caption

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Mark Bennington

Jane Smiley's 1992 novel A Thousand Acres won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction. She is also the author of Moo and Ten Days in the Hills.

Mark Bennington

Smiley creates some vivid historic scenes, including a "real-time" reporting of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire, in which Margaret's visiting mother-in-law perishes, and the internment of Margaret's Japanese neighbors in 1942, an episode that creates the frame for the novel and catalyzes Margaret's moral dilemma.

With admirable clarity, Smiley lets us experience how Margaret observes firsthand the mind of a scientist, buzzing with ideas, and how gradually she realizes that Andrew can be so far off base as to seem insane, and that his more paranoid theories may have endangered people she cares about.

Smiley is at her most persuasive in the final chapters of the novel, as she details Margaret's dawning awareness of the bitter truths and long-term consequences of the choices she has made in her "private life."

Excerpt: 'Private Life'

Private Life
Private Life
By Jane Smiley
Hardcover, 336 pages
List price: $26.95


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 hall windows, a houndstooth jacket. A figure bent over to pet Stella, and Stella wagged her tail. This was reassuring. Margaret took a deep breath. Now the figure stood up, looked up, and smiled. He said, Put your clothes on, darling, we're going for a ride.

She was speechless with pleasure at seeing Pete, though he seemed to have walked right in -- did that mean she had left the door unlocked, because how would he get a key? But getting ready took her no time, she made sure of that. She only brushed out her hair and redid her bun so that some of the gray was hidden, then got out her best blue suit with the white pique collar and her last pair of hose and her nicest shoes. She put on the black straw hat with a half-veil, and she looked neat, she thought, though no better than that -- at her age, you could not hope to look pretty, and she had never been beautiful. When she reached the bottom of the stairs, Pete smiled and kissed her on the cheek. She confined Stella in the kitchen and made sure the dog door to the backyard was unlocked. Then he led her to his car, which she hadn't seen, a Buick, prosperous gray and very clean. She said, Where are we going?

Somewhere you've been before. But that was all he would tell her.

Margaret had heard nothing from Pete in four months, not since their last agitated phone call two days after Pearl Harbor. Before that, she had seen him every couple of weeks. In the interim, either he had gotten old, or she had forgotten how old he was, because now, as they drove and she glanced at him, she saw that, yes, his hair was dark (that had never been natural), but his face was more wrinkled than hers, and spotted here and there. His teeth were yellow and a little crooked. It crossed her mind that maybe Cossacks weren't meant to live this long. Then she noticed her own hands, with their wrinkles and spots, and wondered what he must think of her. She would be sixty-four this year, and he would be -- well, she didn't know for sure. But she adored him anyway, with a feeling that defied these meditations on the passage of time (did she adore him, or simply admire him, or how else would she describe her feelings was a question she often pondered). She looked at him again -- square in the jaw, hawkish in the nose, kind, mysterious, not like any other man she had known. He didn't ask her about Andrew, and she didn't tell him that Andrew had gone to Washington or ask him where he himself had been all these months.

War again meant Vallejo was bursting, cars and trucks backed up and honking everywhere. When they got out of town -- onto the 37, around the north shore of the bay -- traffic was still slow, but the sun came out and the car warmed up. They made idle conversation -- How was she feeling? When did he get the Buick? The weather had been sunny lately, hadn't it? -- but she understood that important topics were to wait until the purpose of their trip was revealed. And the drive was especially pleasant because she had not been out of town, and hardly out of the house, since the attack. Everywhere, the grass was thick and green from the winter rains, and the air was extra bright because of the way that the sunlight shot through and was reflected off fluttering veils of fog. When they turned south, toward the city, the mountains seemed to almost impinge on the highway, they were so black and forbidding, but the waters of the bay seemed to sparkle, and then the fog receded, and they were on the Golden Gate Bridge. The sun shone on it; the cables swept upward to two peaks, and the road rose and curved between them. In the middle of the bridge, the waters of the Pacific spread away in two dazzling directions, deep dark blue, but ablaze with light. And then they were over, and the verges of the highway were green again until well into the city. Pete turned south on Van Ness and kept going. Houses and warehouses gave way to fields and marshes, and then houses and warehouses resumed. When he turned in at the entrance to Tanforan, she was pleased for a moment, and then she remembered that Tanforan was no longer a racetrack but a relocation center. It dawned on her. She said, Pete! You found them! She reached across the seat and took Pete's hand. He gave hers a squeeze.

In that moment, the racetrack vanished before her eyes. The orderly place it had been once, with horses passing here and there, and people walking purposefully or filling buckets or rolling bandages or raking walkways, gave way to high fences with guards outside them (armed), and milling groups of people inside them, not orderly or purposeful, but a melee -- too many people, no horses, everything and everyone in a state of restlessness.

They were allowed through the entrance and directed to park to the left, in what was apparently a small visitors' section. This, too, was fenced off. Pete came around and opened her door. She said, I'm so glad you brought me here.

They asked for you.

Have you been coming here?

I found them last week. This is my third visit. Since I'm not a family member, it might have to be my last. I know one guy -- one guy only -- and he's not in the army, and the army runs things here.

He took her elbow. In his other hand, he carried a bag, but she couldn't tell what was in it.

The stalls had become makeshift rooms. All the doors were open, because the stalls had no other windows -- if a door were closed, there would be no air, except, perhaps, through the cracks in the plank walls. She couldn't help staring as she went by (smiling, of course, in case anyone looked at her). The walls in the stalls had been whitewashed, but badly -- nothing had been done underneath the whitewash to repair cracks or dents where the walls had been kicked -- no doubt the stalls hadn't even been scrubbed down. But every stall was full -- hanging clothes, suitcases, boxes, people, chairs, beds, little tables. They walked down one aisle, came to a cross-aisle, turned left, walked three more aisles, turned right at "Barn H." People looked at them as they passed, voices dropping, or falling silent altogether. Two children, little boys, shouted Hi! Hello! Howdy! in unison, and then went into a fit of giggles. She smiled at them, sorry she had nothing for them. Left again. Pete paused, looked around. Now they were at the far end of Barn G. He said, I thought they were here, and stepped back and looked up. Then he stepped forward and peeked over the half-door. Behind him, she peeked, too. There, on the back wall, was a painting of Mr. Kimura's that she recognized, a pair of finches, one perched on a railing and the other below, perched on the rim of a small bucket, drinking from it. The stall was neat, or as neat as it could be, but, like the others, it was full of things. The Kimuras had never lived grandly, and over the years the neighborhood in Vallejo where they had their shop had sometimes been quite wild, but the sight of the painting hanging here suddenly struck her in a way that the whole scene had not yet. She gave a little gasp and said, This is unbearable!

At least they have a whole one to themselves. Some families are crammed in two to a stall.

You lived in a stall.

As a lark. Or if I wanted to sleep later than four in the morning.

She felt the rebuke.

But neither Naoko Kimura nor her mother, Kiku, appeared. The people in the two neighboring stalls smiled but didn't speak. Pete opened the stall door and set the bag inside.

I don't like this.

Why not?

Because, when I was here two days ago, Kiku was quite ill. If she's up and walking around by now, I would be amazed.

Leaving her to assimilate this alarming news, he walked up the row three stalls and fell into conversation with a man who was standing there. He came back in a hurry.

We have to go to the infirmary, which is next to Barn V. That's across the compound. He says she went over there yesterday morning. They carried her on a stretcher.

But, Pete, what has been happening? Where have they been? Where have you been?

They've been in jail, but not in San Francisco. That was the thing that threw me for weeks. They were in San Francisco for a couple of nights, then they were sent to San Mateo, and then to Santa Cruz County. That's where they were until they were released and sent here. I couldn't have seen them there, even if I'd found them, since I'm not kin, but when I heard about this place, I got in touch with my friend and persuaded him to keep a lookout for them.

When did they get here?

About ten days ago.

Oh, Pete! This place!

It is one step better than jail. But Kiku got sick in jail, and she's only gotten worse here. He sighed. Now they were at Barn S, then T. She could see the training track, dusty and unused, with the practice starting gate sitting in the middle of the sand. They found the infirmary.

Pete opened the door and they peeked in. What they saw was not encouraging -- a large, drafty space with a cocrete floor and cracked and partly boarded-over windows, in which fifteen or twenty beds had been hastily arranged at one end along with some cabinets. Most of the beds were full, and around most of them milled what looked like worried relatives, in jackets and sweaters (Tanforan was always chilly, given that it was in San Bruno), and nurses in white dresses, also wearing jackets. Two men who might have been doctors were talking together next to one of the beds.

Margaret peered at everyone, and finally recognized Naoko, whose hair had become truly gray. She was wearing a coat, sitting beside one of the beds, and leaning toward the patient, who must have been Kiku Kimura, who was heaped with covers against the chill. Naoko looked up and saw them, then rose and came toward them. Pete followed Margaret into the huge room. She felt her hat slip, and reached up to pin it, sorry now that she had worn such a ridiculous item, sorry that she had gazed into the mirror and indulged her vanity.

Naoko was full of smiles, but she looked drawn and anxious. She took each of their hands and thanked them for coming as if they had done her a great favor. She led them to the bed.

Margaret would not have recognized Mrs. Kimura. She lay flat on her back with her chin tilted upward and her mouth open. She did not have her teeth in, so her mouth looked sunken and pitiful. Her hair was smoothed back away from her forehead, and her eyes were closed. The covers were up to her chin, but one thin hand poked out to the side, and Naoko took it as soon as they got to the bed. It made Margaret shiver with cold just to look at her -- she couldn't imagine that Kiku had enough body heat to keep herself warm even under such a pile. When she leaned down to say hello, she could hear that Mrs. Kimura's breath was labored. Pneumonia.

Naoko invited her to sit in the chair and perched herself on the edge of the bed. Pete stood nearby. Naoko took her mother's hand again. She said, She told me herself, when we were down in Santa Cruz and she got a cough there with a fever, that she would get pneumonia from it, and she would die, but that was a month ago. By the time we got here, I thought she would prove herself wrong, but the second night, she coughed all night, sitting up and disturbing our neighbors. There was nothing I could do for her. She glanced over at the doctors. They don't have anything for us. She smoothed her mother's forehead. If she were me and I were her, I know there would be some herbs she would gather or a tea she would make. Oh dear. I ... The doctors were now going from bed to bed, but they didn't approach Mrs. Kimura.

Can they make her more comfortable at least? said Pete.

Naoko shook her head and said again, They have nothing.

Margaret looked around. At the end of the room opposite to the beds were tables and boxes. She saw that the "infirmary" was also being used as a storage shed. I was wondering so about you. I went to your apartment in San Francisco. It must have been the morning after you left. I can't imagine what you've been through.

Naoko lifted her chin and closed her eyes. The interrogations were the worst. Where were our notes on plans for sabotage? Was it my mother, in her travels, who carried messages between various saboteurs? Were we the ones who planted the tomato field that pointed like an arrow at the airfield, or did the farmer himself think of that? We had no idea what they were talking about, but they posed the questions so that they were impossible to answer. How was Lester receiving his information that he was then sending to Joe? Through whom was Lester communicating his information to Joe? Had the Japanese military been in contact with Joe before he went to Japan? Had I ever met Mr. Masaoko? Was my mother the go-between? Was I the go-between? Whose idea was it for Joe to move to Japan and enlist in the army there? My mother was so nervous with these interrogations that it made her sick, and then they asked if she was pretending to be ill so that she could get to a hospital and communicate with her contacts! All of this she said in a quiet voice with lowered eyes. Pete kept looking at her, and tears started running down Margaret's cheeks. And then they came to us one day and said that all the Japs were going to camps and they were finished with us, so they sent us here. They didn't charge us with anything, but they said they retained the account books I was doing for my clients in Japantown, just in case there were coded messages in them. So I am still under suspicion. It was only in that "retained" that Margaret sensed the old, independent Naoko she had known now for thirty-some years.

Pete said, What about Lester?

Naoko raised her hand, but gently, so as to not shake the bed. They still have him. He's charged with illegal gambling. We knew he was doing that. My mother tried to talk him out of that more than once, but what else did he have in his life? The man he worked for was named Rossi, Luca Rossi, and they haven't charged him with anything. He just went out and found himself some other runners. He told Lester, You Japs are going to lose all you got anyway, so you're not so good for business anymore.

Pete looked unsurprised.

Mrs. Kimura gave a strangled gasp, and her eyes fluttered but didn't open. Margaret knew that it was Andrew, her own husband, who had killed her, that Pete knew it, too, and that if Pete knew it Naoko knew it. She said, I am so sorry.

Mrs. Kimura began to cough, weakly, and Naoko helped her sit up a little more. After the coughing subsided, she gave some harsh cries, and then her eyes opened. Her gaze fell on Pete, and then on Margaret. With great and visible effort she assembled her dignity, and finally she smiled. She whispered, You come.

I would have come much sooner if I'd known where you were.

We were in jail. Then, after a long pause, I didn't know. Margaret thought she must mean that she didn't know why.

You shouldn't have been.

Mrs. Kimura said, Lester ... But her voice died. Margaret exchanged a glance with Pete, then she said, I'm sure Lester had nothing to do with it. Lester is a good man. He is. It was -- But Pete's hand clamped down on her shoulder, forbidding her confession.

The doctors still did not come near. Margaret said to Naoko, Are you with her all day?

Naoko nodded.

All night?

I don't mind. But I can't keep warm in here. I go back to my place and warm up and then come here.

If they have nothing for her, then . . .

But she didn't go on. In fact, Margaret doubted whether Mrs. Kimura could survive being carried anywhere on the stretcher. She rubbed her hands together. When they were warm, and Naoko had gotten up to straighten her mother's covers, she took Mrs. Kimura's hand. It was small, thin, and cold. She tried to hold it as gently as she could and to impart a little warmth to it. After what seemed like a long time, she felt the dying woman squeeze her hand, just a bit. Then Mrs. Kimura gasped again and closed her eyes. Pete leaned down and kissed her gently, once on each cheek, his lips just brushing the skin, and then it was time to go. Naoko accompanied them to the door of the infirmary. Pete said, I brought you the things you asked for. I don't know if I can come back.

Naoko nodded.

THEY walked for a minute or two in silence. That was my barn, over there. Barn O. I enjoyed those days.

This is a terrible thing to do.

Yes, says the American in me.

What does the Russian in you say?

I hope they don't get shot.

What about you?

I won't get shot.

I don't know how to think about any of it, frankly, not any of it. If only the Japanese hadn't attacked Pearl Harbor! What do they want? What were they thinking?

Darling, they were thinking, Who do those Russians think they are? Why do you find those English fellows everywhere you turn? What makes the French act so superior? And look at the Americans! Such a bunch of primitives! A pack of apes in trousers, telling us what to do! That is what they were thinking.

They got to the car. One of the guards was staring at them. Pete smiled and waved at him. The man kept his weapon down. Pete unlocked and opened her door, then went around and got in the driver's side. It was now quite chilly, and they didn't open the windows. As he pressed the starter, she said, I put all my pictures away, I couldn't stand them anymore. I used to love them so, but now ...

They backed out of their spot and turned down the line of cars. Darling, there are whole categories of pictures that you never even looked at. Do you remember any of the scowling samurai we saw? With their teeth bared and their eyebrows lowered?

Yes, but --

Those are traditional Japanese pictures, too.

I didn't like those.

They drove out of the gate, waving innocently at the two guards in their little cabin, and then they made their way to Camino Real, and turned north. Pete said, What is the lesson to be learned?

Margaret flared up. It was Andrew --

But Pete stopped her again. I don't blame Andrew.

But he --

Pete raised her hand to his lips. It was clear he wouldn't talk about that.

She felt terribly cold inside her neat suit and her heavy tweed coat. Her hat was still on her head. She unpinned it and set it on the back seat, then shoved her hands in her pockets, but there was no way to get warm. She did not even shiver. Pressed down by her heavy blankets, Kiku Kimura would be too weak to shiver, Margaret thought.

They drove on in silence, this time crossing to the East Bay and passing Berkeley and Oakland, where they were in the sunlight. San Francisco, so beautiful in the morning, was now gray and invisible. They sat in the line of cars, waiting for the ferry at Benicia. Have I told you that I'm moving to Vancouver?

Pete, you've hardly told me anything. But Vancouver! Have you been interrogated, too? Her hand flew to her mouth, then she looked around, but no one, either on the wharf or in the other cars, was looking at them.

Pete laughed his old laugh, the easy, brave laugh that she found so irresistible now, the very laugh she had once distrusted. As he drove onto the ferry, he said, Not yet, but sometimes I do have the sense I'm being watched or followed, though when I look around I never see an extraordinarily tall, mustachioed man. No, darling, it's much simpler than that. I'm busted again.

The tall, mustachioed man would be Andrew.

She tried to adopt a bit of Pete's teasing tone, but she was alarmed. You always said armaments were a sure thing!

Not sure enough. Some innovations tempted me. I should have stuck to mere bullets. I don't know what I should have stuck to, perhaps.

But I've found a position in Vancouver.

As what?

Now the ferry engine rumbled, and then they backed away from the wharf. The car shivered around them.

As a butler. It might be nice, just keeping order. I think I'll enjoy it.

Do you remember my friend Bibikova, from St. Petersburg? She married a man named Yerchikovsky. It's their grandson I'll work for. I'll be an old family retainer. Vassily, they think I am.

He told her this as if she wouldn't care, as if nothing about it was of more than idle interest to her. The noise of the engine swelled again, and then the ferry docked with a bump, and they drove off it.

It was not quite three when they got to her house. As soon as they opened the door, she saw the telegram on the floor, where it had landed when the delivery boy pushed it through the slot. She picked it up. Stella was barking in the backyard.

Pete took one of her hands. Let's have a look at the pictures. I would like to see the ones Sei did for you. He meant Mr. Kimura. She took off her hat and set it on the hall table. The pictures were in the closet. She got them out, then went into the kitchen and turned on the gas under the kettle.

When she came back, Pete was standing in front of the rabbit. The animal looked nearly vaporous today, a rabbit made of mist crouched down beside stalks of luminous green bamboo. The bamboo reminded her more vividly of Mr. Kimura than the rabbit did -- she remembered the exact way that his fingers held the brush and seemed to press the leaves of the bamboo out of it, one by one. That was decades ago now. Mr. Kimura had been dead for two years. They were all so old. Pete set aside the rabbit, and there were the coots. The rabbit was a sketch that Mr. Kimura had given her, but the coots she had commissioned. He had painted it on the north end of the island, not far from where they got on the 37 that very morning, though she hadn't been there in years. Now she gazed at the curve of the far edge of the pond against the higher curve of the hillside. Far to the left, a solitary chick swam so fast that he made ripples. To the right, the other chicks clustered together, picking bits of things off the surface of the water. Their lives had been so brief that they never even lost their red heads, but Mr. Kimura had caught their friskiness perfectly. Then she could hardly see the painting for the tears in her eyes. Pete, don't go away!

He put his arm around her, squeezed hard. He knew, of course, that she adored him, or admired him, or whatever it was. He was one of those sorts of men that women were wiser to stay away from, men who took an interest in women, and observed them, and knew what they were thinking.

Darling, I should have been a different person. But I'm not.

And Margaret felt herself almost say, Me, too. But she didn't know how to say it, because she hardly knew, even as old as she was, what person she had been.

The teakettle was whistling in the kitchen, but they wouldn't be drinking any tea. Pete, staring at the coots, leaned forward with an intent look on his face, and the whistle of the kettle rose in pitch, as if in desperation. She said, You take it. I want you to take it.

He stood straight up and looked at her, refusal written on his face, but then he relented. His smile came on slowly, and he kissed her on the forehead. She stepped forward, took the picture, and placed it in his hands. It wasn't terribly large, though it had always seemed to be. She said, The teakettle is going to burn up.

While she was in the kitchen, Stella entered through the dog door, her tail wagging, but Margaret went out without greeting her, and closed her in the kitchen. In the hall, Pete had his hat on, the picture under his arm. She walked him the step or two to the door and opened it. As he went out onto the porch, he pressed her hand.

Thank you, he said, then again, thank you.

She stood on her porch and watched him walk to his car, get in, and, with a wave, drive away.

From Private Life by Jane Smiley. Copyright 2010 by Jane Smiley. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved.