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.