“Private Life” by Jane Smiley ★★★


San Francisco in ruins, 1906. View from Lawrence Captive Airship, 2000 ft. above San Francisco Bay.

Private Life primarily follows the life of Margaret Mayfield spanning her life in the generation following the Civil War up to World War II.

After the childhood deaths of two of her brothers and the resulting depression and suicide of her father, a doctor who blamed himself for not being able to save everybody, there was now a pressing need for Margaret and her sisters to be married off. Through the machinations of her mother and future mother in law, she was attached to a locally renowned scholar and astronomer several years her senior.

Andrew Early was socially awkward, but this was chalked up to his being a genius. Margaret was drawn to his strangeness in a way and in her naïveté and the fact that she was nearing the age of being forever labeled an old maid, she felt relieved to have been chosen by him. Her fascination with his genius, which he displayed at any opportunity, soon gave way to the realization that his self-interests would always overshadow her. Her life now centered around him. There was no physical or emotional passion between them, other than brief moments when he was stirred by a spark of new discovery related to his work causing him to feel more amorous toward his wife.

Damaged caused by 1906 San Francisco earthquake.

Over the years, she became frustrated with Andrew’s obsessiveness and incessant need to always be right. He burned bridges with former colleagues and employers by one-upping them or correcting their work and insisting they were wrong. After someone close to him was killed in the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, he focused all his attentions on the earthquake itself and the hows and wheres of the damage it caused.

Aftermath of 1906 earthquake.

He was obsessed with a decades-long (one-sided) dispute with Albert Einstein over his quantum theory. In his later years, he considered himself a bit of a sleuth and spied on Japanese Americans he thought were partaking in suspicious activities, passing (unwanted and inaccurate) information onto the government. In so doing, he betrayed close friends, including a Japanese family Margaret enjoyed spending time with, as well as including unfounded suspicions that his own wife was being used unwittingly to transport information. (Nail. Coffin.)

Margaret only had a couple moments of rebellion against her husband, neither one being worth the effort. She was destined to live a life of grey.

Detainees of the Japanese Internment Camp at Tanforan. Artwork by Mine Okubo.

This has beautiful writing which makes the reading of it pleasant, but the story itself is rather uneventful. I did enjoy the portions of the book which covered true historical events, i.e. the San Francisco earthquake and the internment of Japanese Americans at a former racetrack called Tanforan, outside of the city.


There is a quote used by the author in the epigraph taken from Rose Wilder Lane’s Old Home Town:

“In those days all stories ended with the wedding.”

Because most of this particular story centers around Margaret Early’s rather mundane married life, I think the author may have been trying to warn readers of what lies ahead as they embark on their reading. Pleasant but dull.

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