Saturday, September 11, 2010

recently finished: Jane Smiley's Private Life

Jane Smiley's most recent novel, Private Life, was a little hard to get into--it's sort of epic in its span of six decades in the life of its protagonist, Margaret Mayfield (from the 1880s to the 1940s). Part of the challenge is that within this epic sweep, from a childhood in the post-Civil-War Midwest, through the San Fransisco earthquake and the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the novel's focus is really the ordinary--even mundane--life of Margaret, her way of being in the world, her losses, her struggles. For all its slow start, though, by the time I was a third of the way in, I couldn't put it down.

At first I was frustrated by the narrative's starts and stops, by its pacing, by the large gaps of time in between accounts of events. But eventually I realized that this contributed the book's haunting appeal: in Margaret's private life, time does just pass in long periods of "more of the same." The start-and-stop rhythm enacts the pace of a life punctuated by major events but in itself quiet and unassertive. Indeed, the novel seems to happen to the reader in the same way Margaret's life happens to her.

Apart from beautiful prose and a haunting ending, the novel offers a profound look at the often gendered dynamics of public and private, at the relation between national events and life in a home, at the interplay of speech and silences. This is a quiet book, but it subtly poses important questions about ethics and responsibility, marriage and community, science and affection. I recommend it.

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