Monday, July 5, 2010

Review: Private Life

Moving from the late-nineteenth century through World War II, and crossing North America from Missouri to California, this novel is the story of the unhappy and increasingly distant marriage of Margaret and Andrew Early. Always an unlikely couple, the Earlys' marriage grows more troubled over time. By her late twenties Margaret was in danger of living her life as a perpetual spinster. Andrew, a troubled and headstrong scientist, dismissed in shame from his faculty position in Chicago, charms Margaret into accepting an offer of marriage when her options are few. Yet Andrew's problems loom over the marriage: mentally ill, obsessive, a conspiracy theorist, the marriage becomes a cage that holds Margaret in increasing unhappiness.

This book is stark and raw. Breaking out of unhappy marriages is such a mainstay of contemporary fiction, Smiley's work serves as a useful reminder about the realities that have and do face so many women. Reality was and is frequently far more in line with Margaret's experience: decades of unhappiness, few options, with escape beyond the bounds of thought or possibility. Margaret's marriage seems to close in over time. As her existing friends and family die or move away, Andrew's increasing psychosis cuts her off from social circles. Margaret's private life becomes an increasingly tight enclosure. Margaret's is a life that belies easy solutions. Above all, this is a book about making do with what has been given, and its remarkable just how good a book about making do can be.

Jane Smiley, Private Life (Knopf, 2010) ISBN:

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