Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Smiley's 'Private Life" gives a glimpse into an unfulfilled existence

I picked up Jane Smiley's novel "Private Life" on audio CD at the Pottstown Public Library for an 8-hour roundtrip car ride.

Well, I underestimated the running time a bit. This was quite the epic, and Smiley has a gift for writing epics (think "A Thousand Acres"). Getting through all 11 discs took several additional car trips, a renewal at the library (where they charge just $1 for audiobooks), and a few nights of listening at home.

The actual book weighs in at only 318 pp. (May 2010, Knopf, $26.95).

The sensibile, homely and "saint-like" Margaret Mayfield Early, a small-town Missouri woman, marries an educated man at the advanced age of 27 (considered to be far into old-maid-land in the early 20th century ... what would they think of me now?).

It seems the curious, intelligent, no-nonsense Margaret never truly experiences romantic love. In her marriage, she's taken far from her midwestern family - her mother, many sisters and nieces - to the then frontier town of Vallejo, near San Francisco.

She carries a baby boy to term and then loses him to jaundice after just a few weeks. In those weeks, she seems happiest and with the baby's death that glimmer of hope seems to go out of her life.

Andrew puts her to work typing up thousands of pages of his "research." For a while, she types day in and day out. His work never seems to amount to anything, though. They live through lots of history. Smiley is an engaging, thorough researcher and writer, and weaves a lot of history (the first two world wars, the building, burning and rebuilding of San Francisco) though this novel.

Margaret's husband, Capt. Andrew Early, an aspiring astronomer/physicist, turns out to be a buffoon. Well, he was a blowhard all along, but for years and years, everybody around Margaret seems to know that about his true nature but her. She has an epiphany of sorts when she's well into her 60s, when Andrew's conspiracy theories get out of hand, after which time the obedient wife seems to see her husband through others' eyes.

Margaret has, in middle age, one (just ONE!) seemingly satisfying physical tryst in her life with a dashing and mysterious longtime friend. Ugh. I'm depressed thinking about that.

Despite my disappointment that Margaret never realized the happiness that seems to be due her for her whole life, "Private Life" a good story, and one I wanted to know the ending of.

I just didn't fall in love with Margaret's life, and evidently, neither did she.

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