Margaret Mayfield is nearly an old maid at twenty-seven in post-Civil War Missouri when she marries Captain Andrew Jackson Jefferson Early. Read more...
Margaret Mayfield is nearly an old maid at twenty-seven in post-Civil War Missouri when she marries Captain Andrew Jackson Jefferson Early. He's the most famous man their small town has ever produced: a naval officer and a brilliant astronomer--a genius who, according to the local paper, has changed the universe. Margaret's mother calls the match "a piece of luck."
Margaret is a good girl who has been raised to marry, yet Andrew confounds her expectations from the moment their train leaves for his naval base in faraway California. Soon she comes to understand that his devotion to science leaves precious little room for anything, or anyone, else. When personal tragedies strike and when national crises envelop the country, Margaret stands by her husband. But as World War II approaches, Andrew's obsessions take a different, darker turn, and Margaret is forced to reconsider the life she has so carefully constructed.
Private Life is a beautiful evocation of a woman's inner world: of the little girl within the hopeful bride, of the young woman filled with yearning, and of the faithful wife who comes to harbor a dangerous secret. But it is also a heartbreaking portrait of marriage and the mysteries that endure even in lives lived side by side; a wondrously evocative historical panorama; and, above all, a masterly, unforgettable novel from one of our finest storytellers.
Publishers Weekly® Reviews
- Reviewed in: Publishers Weekly, page 90.
- Review Date: 2010-01-25
- Reviewer: Staff
The Pulitzer Prize–winning author of A Thousand Acres delivers a slow-moving historical antiromance in her bleak 13th novel. In the early 1880s, Margaret Mayfield is rescued from old maid status by Andrew Jackson Jefferson Early, an astronomer whose questionable discoveries have taken him from the scientific elite to a position as a glorified timekeeper at a remote California naval base. Margaret’s world is made ever smaller as the novel progresses, with no children to distract her and Andrew more excited by his telescope than his wife. Isolation and boredom being two dominant themes, the book is a slow burn, punctuated by detours into the larger world: the Wobblies, the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, and both world wars. The old-fashioned language can be off-putting, though it does make the reader feel like a reluctant second wife to Andrew as his failed scientific theories are revealed in tedious detail and the gruesome monotony of marriage is portrayed in a repellant but fascinating fashion. Thus, when Margaret finally realizes her marriage is “relentless, and terrifying,” it feels wonderfully satisfying, but the proceeding 100 pages offer a trickle of disappointment and a slackening of suspense that saps hard-earned goodwill. (May)
Smiley's quiet, elegant tale of the 20th century
By 1880s American standards, Margaret Mayfield is an old maid. Both her sisters have married and are starting families of their own, but Margaret, plain and quiet at 27, seems destined for a life at home with her mother.
While riding her bicycle in the fields outside her Missouri town, she meets Captain Andrew Jackson Jefferson Early. A handsome astronomer who believes he’s on the verge of fame and fortune for his brilliant work, he marries Margaret and moves her to the naval base in San Francisco where he manages the observatory. And that’s where the story gets a little weird.
At first, Margaret and Andrew are happy, or at least content; she cooks and cleans, he works and writes. She strives to understand his passionate study of, essentially, air and distant objects in the sky. Through the years, Margaret carves out a life for herself, exploring San Francisco, doing charity work and joining a knitting club (which partakes in the occasional game of poker). She makes friends, the most vibrant of whom is gossipy, tomboyish Dora, a journalist who travels the world in search of her next big story.
But as Margaret broadens her world, Andrew shrinks into his own, shunning friendship in favor of solitary hours of studying the skies. As the years pass, his reticence gives way to eccentricity, then paranoia. With World War II looming, Andrew becomes something much more dangerous—to himself, to Margaret and to everyone they know.
Author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel A Thousand Acres, Jane Smiley again creates in Private Life a quiet, elegant story that is somehow both sweeping and intimate. From the great San Francisco fire of 1906 to the internment camps of World War II, Smiley uses the stormy backdrop of American history to examine one marriage, with its sacrifices both small and great.