Thursday, January 29, 2015

Review
"Private Life"
by Jane Smiley

“Private Life” by Pulitzer-Prize winning novelist Jane Smiley is a third-person narrated account of the life -- from the age of five in 1883 to the age of 64 in 1942 -- of an accommodating, submissive woman, Margaret (Mayfield) Early, who must finally, out of necessity assert herself. I felt that Smiley’s narration, a consequence of Margaret’s compliant nature, lacked excitement until maybe a fourth of the way into the book when she marries her husband, Captain Andrew Early, an egotistical astronomer and physicist. I empathized more and more with Margaret’s character as her dissatisfaction with Andrew progressed.

People late in life tend to judge their past lives in terms of accomplishment and fulfillment. Margaret’s judgment becomes one of bitterness, toward those who have manipulated and controlled her and toward her own cowardice of accommodation. Accomplishment requires courage. Fulfillment requires contentment with outcomes and with oneself as a human being. Throughout most of the novel Margaret lacks the courage to forge her identity and determine her future. She has allowed stronger-minded individuals to control her. Her enjoyments result from her associations with strong-minded yet considerate acquaintances: her eccentric, exciting sister-in-law Dora; Mrs. Lear, a neighbor and wise advisor at Mare Island Naval Base, Calfironia; Mrs. Wareham, a compassionate boarding house landlady in Vallejo, California; Pete Krizenko, an adventurous, mysterious Ukrainian entrepreneur for whom Margaret feels an emotional and sexual attraction; and the Kimura family – the aging father, an exquisite painter; the mother, a tireless, traveling midwife; and the daughter Naoko, a trustworthy midwife and housekeeper.

At the beginning of Part One of the novel we learn that Margaret, living near St. Louis, Missouri, has repressed her memory of a public hanging that her older brother had taken her to witness when she was five years old. Both of her brothers die during her childhood. Margaret’s father, a physician, kills himself. Margaret’s mother Lavinia moves her family to her father’s nearby farm where they reside until her three daughters marry. From an early age Margaret learns resignation.

Lavinia considers Margaret, at age 23, to be lazy because she is content to read books rather than assert herself to attract suitors. Daughters of several of Lavinia’s friends have taken school teacher jobs in Idaho to find husbands. Margaret tells Pete Krizenko fairly late in the novel: “I was the third sister even though I’m the oldest. There’s always a beautiful sister and a smart sister, and then there’s a sister that’s not beautiful or smart.” Lavinia places her daughters Elizabeth and Beatrice in social circles where their attributes attract eventual husbands. Margaret appears destined to be an old maid. However, Mrs. Jared Early, a rich, seemingly generous, well-educated widow and elitist member of high St. Louis society, befriends Lavinia, and, ultimately, Margaret. Her son, Andrew Early, educated at Columbia and the University of Berlin, and recently a professor at the University of Chicago, visits St. Louis. Mrs. Early arranges for Lavinia and Margaret to spend a fiercely cold winter night at her residence. Andrew is present. Margaret had met him by chance briefly several years before. Margaret experiences “the distinct feeling of staring into her own future … The play had begun. The customary ending was promised. Her own role was to say her lines sincerely and with appropriate feeling. At her age, she thought, she should know what those feelings were, but she did not.”

In the spring of 1903 Mrs. Early arranges to have her son and Margaret tour the exposition grounds of the 100th year celebration of the Louisiana Purchase. Margaret recognizes that “he was not exactly like other mortals—he knew more, saw more. His mind worked more quickly and surveyed a broader landscape.” Submitting to the wishes of her mother and Mrs. Early, Margaret persuades herself to believe that, unlike other couples, they could share a unique life. He leaves St. Louis to spend several weeks in Washington, D.C. Afterward, he travels to Arizona and California. Lavinia advises patience. Eventually he returns and proposes. Thus begins their unique, increasingly unhappy marriage.

Years later Margaret discovers several letters that Mrs. Early had written to Andrew about the purpose of the marriage.

"Our thoughts about certain persons here in this town may not have come to anything (though the girl and her mother still seem receptive enough), but there are other girls and other mothers. My very least favorite thought is that of you solitary and alone, with no companion and no one to care for you. … No, the girl is not educated nor evidently intelligent, quiet without being mysterious (though I think there is more to her than meets the eye), but what do you want in a wife at your age? [He was 38, she 27] … I do not, frankly, think that you could abide a rival or even a young woman who considered herself your equal and spoke her own ideas back to you with any sort of self-confidence. … This girl is a well-made young woman with proper instincts and reasonable connections. Her mother has trained her to take care of household matters."

Telling Margaret’s thoughts, the author narrates: “in the end, Mrs. Early carried her point—she had chosen the local old maid, harmless but useful, to marry and care for her darling son” and that Lavinia had been “in on the plot. … Not only had he [Andrew] entertained doubts about her, he had tried her out, seen that he could have her, and then doubted and hesitated and suffered before taking her as the least of evils.”

Margaret learns that Andrew is actually two men. “When he was wondering [his greatest talent], he was a likable, congenial, and sociable person. When he had stopped wondering and was convinced that he knew the answer, he became stubborn and stern.” Before their marriage, while he was at Columbia and Chicago, he had challenged his superiors’ theories and made enemies. Married to Margaret, forced thereafter to work independently of academia, at a naval observatory at Mare Island, California, he spends most of the next three and a half decades of his life seeking to achieve scientific world acclaim. He writes numerous newspaper and scientific journal articles; he makes speeches; he writes lengthy books about the universe. “Private Life” is as much a portrait of an unstable genius who, craving adulation and not receiving it, becomes delusional and callously destructive as it is the portrait of a not remarkable, submissive, but decent woman who must defy her deep-rooted passivity to take command of her life.

Margaret’s and Andrew’s dual stories weave through many important historical events: the San Francisco Earthquake, World War I, the influenza epidemic of 1918, the Stock Market Crash of 1929 and the Great Depression, the rise of totalitarianism in Germany, Pearl Harbor, and the internment of Japanese American citizens.

Early during my reading I considered not finishing the novel. “The pace is slow,” I complained to my wife. A fourth of her way through the book, while I was writing the first draft of this review, she disagreed. “It’s not slow at all.” I persevered and was amply rewarded. This is a thought-provoking book. In strategic places Jane Smiley’s excellent command of language stirred powerfully my emotions. I conclude this review with this example, the death of Margaret’s jaundiced baby.

"Alarm and guilt surged in her, burning upward from her feet, enveloping her head, her brain, her mind in a fever of knowledge. … Alexander started to make a noise, high-pitched and distressed, and to arch his back. It seemed to her that he was crying for help, so she picked him up and went to the door of the room and opened it. Naoko was in the hallway. She looked at her, and without Margaret’s saying a thing, the girl ran out the front door. Margaret closed her door and carried Alexander over to the bed. She sat down and readied herself to nurse, but in that short moment, the moment between her sitting down and her putting him to the breast, he lost even that ability—Margaret felt it. It was a feeling of something dissolving. She looked at his face. She saw that he had but one thing left, which was that he could look back at her. She stroked the top of his head, moving the thin hairs this way and that, feeling the smoothness of his golden skin. She held him closer, as gently as she could. And then, in the way that you can feel with your baby but not see or sense with anyone else larger or more distantly related, she felt the life force go out of him entirely."