- Private Life: A Novel written by Jane Smiley; read by Kate Reading
- Audio CD unabridged, 13.5 hours on 11 CDs
- Publisher: Random House Audio; Unabridged edition (May 4, 2010)
- ISBN-13: 978-0307715319
Back-of-the-box blurb: In the 1880s, 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.
This novel is an 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.
She Is Too Fond of Books‘ thoughts: The story of Andrew and Margaret Early holds few great surprises for the reader/listener. A foreword starts us in 1942, after the attack on Pearl Harbor, and with the round-up of Japanese in and around San Francisco. From there we move back to the late 1880s, when Margaret and Andrew first encounter each other. But, we are already full with the knowledge of where Andrew’s obsessions and paranoia will lead. As such, it is the story of how they got to where they were in 1942; there was no suspense about what would become of the Earlys.
Private Life is a reminder of just how fragile a public façade can be; we are led to wonder not only about Andrew and Margaret Early, but about her cousin Dora (a very independent and intelligent woman who makes her way as a newspaper reporter), her friend Pete (who may not be who claims to be), and the Kimura family. That façade is especially tricky when he who erects it (Captain Early), is the only one who believes in its strength, all others resigned to the truth, as in the fable of The Emperor’s New Clothes. His delusions about his own academic theories, and his suspicions about others was the most interesting storyline; I suspect the focus was intended to be on Margaret Early, who showed strength at times, but was mostly distant to me.
The plot didn’t so much unfold as it plodded along; it wasn’t unpleasant to listen to on audiobook (Kate Reading is a steady narrator, whose inflection and accent easily distinguish each character), it simply wasn’t a book that urged me to keep at it (remember, I use audiobooks as an incentive to get myself on the treadmill). I wonder if I’d have found it more gripping in a print edition.
I’ve read Jane Smiley’s Moo and her Pulitzer Prize-winning A Thousand Acres. I remember a similar heavy feeling and thoughts of “well, that’s that!” when I finished A Thousand Acres (yes, I’m saying I wasn’t overwhelmed with this Pulitzer Prize winner). Moo has stuck with me more, with the subtle dry wit of Smiley’s plot and characters. In all, I’m glad I listened to the audiobook; I’ve learned more about the writing of Jane Smiley, and about myself as a reader/listener.
Have you read or listened to Private Life? What is your opinion – and should I revisit this in print one day?