By Jane Smiley
REVIEWED BY CLAIRE HOPLEY
The prologue to “Private Life” describes a chill day soon after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Margaret Early has just discovered that her husband has reported her friends the Kimuras as spies, and they are now among the hundreds being detained in the horse boxes of a Californian racecourse. Mrs. Kimura is dying. Margaret rushes to help, but can do nothing. These horrifying racecourse scenes fade as Jane Smiley embarks on her tale of Margaret’s life, yet the questions they raise linger in the reader’s mind.
How did Margaret, born in the late 1870s and never aspiring to more than a conventional middle-class marriage, come to be at that detainment center in 1942? And how did everything in her life - in her times - go quietly but steadily and disastrously wrong? Misjudgment on a grand scale is the answer. Margaret grew up mostly in Missouri when it was still torn by antagonisms left over from the Civil War.
When her two younger sisters quickly find husbands, Margaret seems to be a spinster in the making, even though, as a sister remarks, “She is really quite pretty.” She’s nice too - and that oft-mocked adjective is the right one here. Her lack of a husband is the result of her lack of a certain kind of energy: the kind needed to engage with people and circumstances.
But when Andrew Jackson Jefferson Early returns to Missouri after teaching astronomy at the University of Chicago, his mother gets together with Margaret’s, and they agree that a marriage between their children would solve problems. Unfortunately, those problems include some that Margaret does not realize until much later.
Margaret and Andrew move to California, where she keeps house, gardens and knits, and Andrew takes charge of a naval observatory. From the outside, Andrew seems to be a perfectly good husband. He’s tall, talented, self-assured, industrious, reasonably well-to-do, unfailingly polite, and neither a drinker nor a philanderer. But his multiple talents, astonishing memory and early academic success have convinced him of his own genius and therefore of the validity of his theories.
No countervailing evidence has any effect on his convictions. As he gets increasingly out of step with 20th-century science - especially Einsteinian physics - he writes and self-publishes books propounding his theory of the universe. Margaret types them and even learns to drive a car so she can ferry him to speaking engagements. To Andrew, this is no more than he deserves. Indeed, it is not nearly enough:
“He wanted agreement, belief, even, possibly worship. And he wanted that worship to be large, surrounding, something that he could feel, not the mere something that she or anyone could give.”
Yet over time Margaret has realized that his theories are wrong. She has married a fool, and while he has been pursuing his addled ideas, her life has passed. This tale of the slow realization of monumental error is a variant of the Dorothea and Casaubon story in George Eliot’s “Middlemarch.” Misjudgments undid their lives too. Dorothea falls for the barren Casaubon through a romantic desire to commit her life to doing good, while Margaret drifts into marriage because that’s really all there is for her.
Both find themselves tied to scholars who want to generate new knowledge, but not half as much as they want to live in the light of fame and glory for having done so. As they realize this is not going to happen - that their peers do not even respect their work - mental suffering warps them, and they become meaner and lesser people.
From being merely self-centered, Andrew becomes a monster whose delusions know no bounds. Ms. Smiley traces this change with such skill that reading about it becomes ever more gripping as her novel takes readers closer to that day at the racecourse. The author also follows “Middlemarch” in evoking a particular place at a particular time. She describes America as it pulled out of the Civil War into the Gilded Age, and then slid through blinding overconfidence into recession and a second all-consuming war.
Andrew Jackson Jefferson Early is a type of willful hubris, a giant bumbling around dangerously, dooming himself and others to disaster because he cannot recalibrate his sense of self. Though “Private Life” is not as richly painted as “Middlemarch,” Andrew is a much bigger and more frightening character than Casaubon because he operates on such a grander scale.
Like her husband, though in a different way, Margaret also loses control because she cannot shape a way to save herself or change Andrew or help her Japanese friends, the Kimuras. Mr. Kimura’s pictures of birds and animals have opened her eyes because he captures them so accurately and beautifully. In contrast, Margaret often feels that Andrew sucks up all the air in their house. He certainly sucks up readers’ attention in this novel.
As the self-effacing wife, Margaret sometimes seems too lightly sketched, while Pete, the mysterious Russian who befriends her, seems too fantastical. Yet, as she did in her 1992 Pulitzer-Prize-winning “A Thousand Acres,” Ms. Smiley brilliantly uses the chronological narrative to show how tragedy slowly wells up from seemingly ordinary circumstances, unperceived at first but then manifesting itself as a spreading disease. If “Private Life” lacks the power of that earlier novel, it compels attention, not least for its account of an era of American history.
Claire Hopley is a writer and editor in Amherst, Mass.