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.
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."