Saturday, July 7, 2012

Completed: Private Life


My June plans to read The Best and the Brightest were completely stymied by the fact that it just didn't seem like the right book for such a bustling, busy month. That and it was just too big to carry around in California for 10 days.

Instead, I read Jane Smiley's excellent and satisfying novel, Private Life. This book was given to me as a gift by one of my all time favorite families. As it turns out, Jane Smiley is my student's aunt! She came to school once and spoke about a YA book she wrote called The Georges and the Jewels.

This book, Private Life, starts in the late 1800s and continues up until World War II. The main character, Margaret, grows up in a small Missouri town. She suffers through several early tragedies, including the accidental death of one brother, another brother's death from illness, and her father's suicide. Margaret is an interesting character, emotionally scarred by these early events, she withdraws from life. She can tell that she is different from her sisters, she's aware of lacking some human, nurturing touch that others seem to possess.

In her late 20s, Margaret is destined for spinsterhood, but manages through the machinations of her mother and another town matron, to land Andrew Jackson Jefferson Early as a husband. Andrew is the closest the town gets to a local celebrity. He's a well-known astronomer and scientist, but there's a whiff of disgrace attached to his name, something went wrong with his teaching post at the University of Chicago.

Margaret and Andrew marry and move to Vallejo, California. Andrew works for the Navy and busies himself with writing a book of his scientific findings. Margaret gives birth to a boy, Alexander, who dies only a few weeks later. Smiley's description of what it is like to fall in love with your baby is beautiful and true. As the years pass, various tragedies and world events (the San Francisco earthquake, World War I, etc) impact their lives in both large and small ways.

The interesting thing about this book to me was how vividly Smiley portrays such a small and uneventful life. Margaret is a quiet woman, a reader and housewife. She knits and sews and visits with other Vallejo families. But Margaret is a keen observer of the life around her---except that she is not able to fully understanding her own husband. Only over the course of many years does she discover for herself what is obvious to everyone else: Andrew is a megalomaniac, a small man convinced of his own genius and greatness. He is at times delusional and obsessed with proving his own ideas. The moment when Margaret realizes that he is nothing but a fool is one of the most powerful scenes in the book. She both understands the reality of their situation and at the same time is completely powerless to do anything about it. She stays with him for a lifetime, feeling more and more miserable, trapped, and alone. Interestingly, the book isn't as depressing as this would make it all seem.  Margaret has stoically withstood so much trauma, that she is able to bear the misery of her marriage without complaint. She is a tragic figure, but also one that I felt great pity and empathy for. Although she has a friend, Dora, who has never married and has traveled the world, Margaret completely lacks the imagination and will to extricate herself from her marriage. At one point, she talks about Andrew's old-fashioned manners and morals, but she is just as much a victim of her upbringing.

There were a few other things of note in this novel. Andrew is a man who only talks about science, knowledge, and thinking. Early in their marriage, she ends up finding out a lot about him and his past by reading his letters. (This makes her sound like a snoop, but it's on the advice of a fellow Navy wife, a very likeable character who we understand is trying to help Margaret figure out who it is she has married.) Margaret reads a great deal of correspondence from his mother, which makes perfect sense to me. But then there's also several letters that she reads FROM Andrew to his mother. This isn't the age of email, it's 1900! How does Andrew have to come *his own* letters that he sent to his mother? It just didn't really make any sense, and I found myself sort of annoyed that the author couldn't come up with a more clever way of divulging that information to Margaret. She also picks up the letter conceit some 40 years later, again in order to give some needed information to Margaret. Are we really supposed to believe that Margaret read only *some* letters, 40 years apart, that happened to give her some much needed information about Andrew? Just a little too convenient, and I found myself sort of irritated by the contrived nature of the letters. Not a deal-breaker, just a mild disappointment, maybe.

The other thing that really bothered me---I don't know, maybe this is a good thing---is that there is a prologue and epilogue set in the immediate aftermath of Pearl Harbor. In the beginning, before we know anything, a man named Pete comes calling for Margaret and takes her to a prison/internment camp to visit a Japanese family that she clearly cares for. Pete assures Margaret that the imprisonment of this family isn't Andrew's fault. In the epilogue, Margaret confronts Andrew about the wild and improbably accusations he made against the family. Finally, the last scene is one where she tells her friends about a childhood incident that she has always claimed to have forgotten. When she was five, her brother took her into town to watch a hanging. The book ends with her recollection of this terrifying and disturbing incident.

About this framing device: NOT A SINGLE QUOTATION MARK IS USED IN THE PROLOGUE OR EPILOGUE. First of all, you know how much a fucking hate that. But here's an example of it drawing my attention to something I might have not have otherwise noticed. My brain is considering several different possibilities here, but the one I keep coming back to is that perhaps these scenes have been embellished/created/dreamed by Margaret. All of her life, she's been...well...symbolically speechless in the face of societal expectations. Maybe these scenes are just a glimpse of who she wishes to be rather than the person she really is? After a lifetime of subservient silence, would she ever confront Andrew? After a lifetime of forgetting, would her memory of the hanged man appear so easily? I think I will be puzzling over these quotation-mark-less sections for a while.

Of course, maybe the author is just doing it to annoy me. Perhaps I am totally over thinking it. Anything's possible!

Overall, I truly enjoyed this book. The question of how our private selves intersect with the outside world is a fascinating one. Smiley does some interesting things with Andrew and Margaret---he's not *always* wrong, and his ideas are occasionally proven correct. The fact that he's not 100% crackpot makes Margaret's life all that more confusing, because she herself cannot gauge when he's wrong or right. Her entire public life is beset with doubt and unhappiness. Only her inner life is serene and peaceful, but as time goes on she begins to wonder why she was so unwilling to take action or to make changes. What goes on inside a single person, or inside a marriage, can never be known to anyone but that person living it---a point that this novel illustrates in a way that is both beautiful and heartbreaking.



  1. This books sounds really interesting -- might make for a good audio book, depending on the narrator (I find that these very "internal" books make for good audio books, as I am listening to them *literally* right inside of my ears...)

    You wrote, "What goes on inside a single person, or inside a marriage, can never be known to anyone but that person living it," and that is just so damned true -- I love that Smiley has managed to nail that sentiment so well.

  2. I Was talking to my cousin Julie today about audiobook you have any surefire hits I could recommend to her?

    You should check this out as an audiobook. I bet it would be a good one.

  3. It depends on what she is interested in... I like a really long, involved book (something I can listen to for a long time) and I love Stephen King's 11-22-63. It's not a horror book at all -- great story (romance, time travel, history, danger -- it's got it all!), well-developed characters, fantastic narrator. Probably my all-time favorite audiobook. It's almost 31 hours long.

    These are my other favorites, but it really depends on what she likes...
    - Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern: I *loved* this book. The narrator is Jim Dale, of Harry Potter fame, so that makes it great, but also it's a sweet magical romantic tale that I did not want to end.
    - The Help by Kathryn Stockett: The narrators are wonderful, but if she's already seen the movie, it may be too much of a "that's not what [insert person] sounds like!
    - Ready Player One by Ernest Cline: science fiction book set in the future and mostly in a video game -- kind of reads like a YA novel but it's crammed with fun 80s references ... enjoyable if you're into any of that.
    - Reamde by Neal Stephenson: *Super* long one (almost 40 hours) and it's a winding, crazy romp -- Chinese spies, Russian mafia, Canadian hackers, videogame espionage -- it goes all over the world in it's lengthy rompiness, which I enjoyed, but might not be everyone's cup of tea.

    If she wants fluff/chick lit, those are generally shorter, but I liked:
    - A Little Night Magic by Lucy March -- Small town chick, discovers she has magical powers, changes ensue, falls in love, etc. There's a bit of meat in this one towards the end, but mostly good fluff.
    - Anything by Molly Harper and narrated by Amanda Ronconi. Super fun, funny, fluffy chick lit and Amanda is a great (and hilarious) narrator. They make a great team. The only thing on their list I have not listened to was the "Nice Girls Don't..." series and that's only because I actually read the eBooks.

    Oh, and Bossypants is fucking hilarious. Tina Fey is a god.