The breadth of Jane Smiley's subject matter has always been astonishing — she has written novels about farming, horse training, Hollywood and university life, and non-fiction books and essays about child-rearing, impulse buying and dressing.
In her 13th novel, Private Life, the Pulitzer Prize- winning author of A Thousand Acres takes that breadth and applies it temporally, chronicling a woman's life from the 1880s to World War II. The result is a novel rich in setting and scope.
The novel begins in 1883 in Missouri with Margaret Mayfield, considered nearly an old maid at 27. Through creative matchmaking, she's married off to Capt. Andrew Jackson Jefferson Early, an astronomer who is considered the town's genius and who traveled to Mexico and charted doubles — "two stars whirling in tandem."
In 1905, the couple head to the San Francisco Bay area, specifically Mare Island, home to the first U.S. naval shipyard established on the Pacific Coast, where Early is employed at the small observatory. When the 1906 earthquake hits San Francisco, the reader, through Smiley's omniscient narrator, experiences the chaos and tragedy: "The navy already knew ... because of wireless transmissions, that part of San Francisco had crumpled to the ground — all the buildings and tenements down near the Embarcadero and the wharf." San Francisco's Preparedness Day Parade, the Spanish flu epidemic and war preparation flesh out the landscape.
Smiley's main theme is the circumscribed life of a married woman at the turn of the century. Margaret's plight is worsened by her obsessive, intellectual, ravenously egotistical husband, who sees Margaret primarily as a servant to his ideas; in addition to cooking, cleaning and driving him around, she is his typist. "Andrew decided that, given the end of the war ... Margaret should double her typing time — two hours in the morning and two hours in the afternoon, but not while he was sleeping."
Margaret senses that she is valued not for anything she has done but rather for what she has put up with. "It was like being told she was a dolt, only in nicer language." And therein lies a flaw with such a main character: The reader yearns for a protagonist with more agency, passion and freedom.
Dora, Margaret's sister-in-law, a "squat, plain girl with thin hair and nothing more to offer," never marries. Instead, she becomes a reporter for the San Francisco Examiner, thrusting herself into interesting situations, including Europe during World War I. She socializes with painters, musicians and Peter Krizenko, a Russian with a shady but intriguing past of fortunes earned and lost.
A subplot is the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II, and when Margaret befriends several Japanese-Americans living near San Francisco — an artist, a midwife and their daughter — they, too, overshadow Margaret. Even Margaret's increasingly odd husband — Smiley's Ahab — outshines her with his theories about the origins of the universe, why the moon has craters, earthquakes, and his lifelong conviction that Einstein's theories are wrong. "Curiosity flowed out of Andrew in a torrent, bowling over everything before it." Andrew, with his passion for ideas, none of which pan out, emerges as one of Smiley's strongest characters.
Margaret is often presented to the reader as if she's stuck behind a sheet of glass; the narrator tends to talk over the characters, so the reader knows little about an event, or what Margaret is experiencing. Instead of seeing Margaret suffer the collateral damage of her marriage, the reader is told that Margaret had developed all "sorts of strange symptoms now, breathlessness, headaches, even a kind of agoraphobia when she got up in the morning and the thought of leaving her room was repellent to her."
Toward the novel's end, though, as Margaret manages to gain a sliver of freedom, the overwhelming feeling for her and the reader is regret and loss associated with a narrowly lived life. When Margaret says, "There are so many things that I should have dared before this," the reader can only nod in agreement.