Private Life by Jane Smiley

Mar 15, 2012

Private Life is the latest book by the Pulitzer prize-winning novelist Jane Smiley. In this brilliant, character driven novel, Smiley created an unforgettable heroine in a quiet devoted wife, Margaret Mayfield Early. Private life chronicles several decades of Margaret’s life, from her childhood in post-Civil War Missouri, through her married life on a naval base in California, up to the early years of World War II.

When reading Private Life, I alternated between reading the novel and listening to the audiobook, masterfully narrated by Kate Reading. I was absorbed by the elaborate account of Margaret’s subtly arranged marriage to an accomplished yet eccentric, even delusional, naval astronomer. As Smiley stated in her interview for, Private Life is above all about marriage—what marriage means, who do you marry and how the marriage is to be lived through.

Margaret’s marriage aside, I was even more fascinated by the separate, private life that Margaret quietly fashioned away from her husband. Smiley created a group of remarkable secondary characters that become Margaret friends, such as the Kimuras, a Japanese family; Dora Bell, a fearless and feministic reporter; and the mysterious Russian immigrant, Pete Krizenko. Another interesting component of the book is the glimpse into the historical events that Margaret encounters throughout her life, including the St. Louis World Fair and The Great San Francisco Earthquake.

 Private Life is a thought provoking, complex and multilayered novel that will stay with you long after you finish the last page. For a discussion of Private Life, please join the Corinth Library Book Group meeting on March 27, 2012. Also, do not miss the Jane Smiley Author Event at the Central Resources Library on Tuesday, April 10, 2012.

Reviewed by Library Staff