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Private Life

Private Life by Jane Smiley
May 04, 2010 | 336 Pages
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“Smiley’s best novel yet . . . [a] heartbreaking, bitter, and gorgeous story of a woman’s life stunted by marriage . . . Nothing is confined about this ambitious novel itself, however. Smiley makes dazzling and meticulous use of her historical scope; the Louisiana Purchase Exposition, the San Francisco earthquake, the World Wars, the influenza epidemic, the Japanese internment, the harnessing of electricity, the evolution of the automobile and the movies, Hearst and Einstein—all are gradually incorporated into her plot and themes. Even more admirable is her thoroughly convincing rendition of intimate details from the perspective of another era—the feeling of riding a bicycle when it was a new sensation, the subtle yet powerful machinations of a mother and future mother-in-law in arranging a marriage, the commonplace expectation of children’s deaths.”
The Atlantic Monthly

“Extraordinarily powerful . . . In the course of this brilliantly imagined, carefully chiseled story, Smiley introduces a rich cast of characters. Among Margaret’s cohorts is a Japanese midwife who can virtually smell Margaret’s marital misalliance; an irresistible Cossack who says things like ‘Put your clothes on, darling, we’re going for a ride’; a sister-in-law journalist who is married to her work and counts as friends Ezra Pound and Henri Bergson. A gripping half-century of history strides through these pages, too. Lenin makes an appearance, as do Einstein, Thomas Edison and Nikola Tesla. And then there is early 20th-century science in all its startling crudeness, a coming-of-age story of its own. Smiley’s virtuosity should be no surprise to us. She has proven herself in a dozen wildly different books . . . But Private Life is a quantum leap for this author, a book that . . . burrows deep into the psyche and stays. It kept me up all night, long after I’d finished it, remembering the lives of my mother and grandmothers, recalling every novel about women I had ever read, from Anna Karenina to My Antonia. In a fair world, it will get all the readers it deserves. It’s not often that a work as exceptional as this comes along in contemporary American letters.”
—Marie Arana, The Washington Post

“Birth and death—that ancient balance presides over Smiley’s panoramic portrait of Margaret Mayfield. . . . Deemed the least attractive of [her sisters], against all odds Margaret is rescued from spinsterhood by Captain Andrew Early, the reputedly brilliant son of a prominent local family. . . . Andrew is also subject to manias and delusions, and their intensification will provide the undercurrent of the novel’s plot. In 1905, Andrew and Margaret marry and head to San Francisco, where he has a posting at a naval observatory. Great things are in the works. Almost straightaway [however], there is tragedy. . . . But loss is only part of what divides Margaret and Andrew. . . . As time goes on, this troubled scientist has more and more difficulty drawing the line between world events and his own life. Smiley plays these scenes out gradually, finessing the increments that build domestic anxiety to extend and enrich her central concern: a fully fleshed portrait of the conflicted loyalties of a woman raised to be a submissive wife, a constant support to her husband. . . . Smiley understands that personal redemption is usually transacted within the deepest private self, [and] as the years pass, Private Life reflects the pressures of the larger world on the most intimate aspects of personal existence. . . . As World War II breaks out, Smiley lets events infiltrate her narrative even as she keeps Margaret’s marriage squarely in the foreground. Through every scene and revelation, she keeps in mind the moment she’s building toward: the completion of Margaret’s long-deferred self-recognition. What she finally delivers has a Jamesian twist of the unforeseen, but it’s achieved with a sureness of hand that’s all her own.”
—Sven Birkerts, The New York Times Book Review

“Masterly . . . In this precise, compelling depiction of a singular woman, Smiley creates an inner world as expansive as her character’s outer world is constrained.”
The New Yorker (June 14 & 21, 2010)

“With its quietly accruing power, [Private Life is] the kind of book that puts the lie to those who claim that great novelists produce their best work early and spend the rest of their lives gilding the lily. . . . The bulk of Private Life is devoted to the ways, large and small, that Margaret’s marriage shapes and circumscribes her life. It’s a remarkable portrait not only of Margaret but of her husband . . . Private Life is an unselfconsciously historical novel, in that the backdrops and events—in Missouri and then California—are never obtrusive yet fill every crevice of the story. . . . As in Marilynne Robinson’s luminous novel Gilead, Private Life’s protagonist is slow to act, a victim of self-limitations whose most dramatic events are internal and whose emotional wounds seem largely self-inflated. . . . Smiley has created in Margaret Mayfield an enduring character so faultlessly realized that her failures and self-doubt, her occasional small pleasures, and her moments of painful self-awareness feel inevitable and at times heart-wrenching. She is a woman of her times who scarcely struggles to rise above them—the kind of character who often gets shuffled off, in fiction’s pages, to inhabit a bit part. In the pages of Private Life she is given as full and honest and sympathetic an existence as she—as any of us—deserves.”
—Sarah L. Courteau, Chicago Tribune

“Not all tragic heroes are undone by hubris. The opposite quality can be just as devastating. Consider Margaret Mayfield Early in Jane Smiley’s haunting new novel, Private Life. . . . When she marries a local hero, the pairing has the aura of a small-town Cinderella story. . . . Smiley has proven expert at wedding the epic and the earthy, setting King Lear on a farm, for instance, in A Thousand Acres. In Private Life, she examines Margaret’s journey in the context of a vast, changing, troubled world. The conclusion is that even those who risk nothing cannot shield themselves from disappointment. [Margaret’s] keen mind and generous nature endear her to a colorful circle of friends and acquaintances. And they make her receptive to moments of joy, which Smiley evokes with delicate poignance. Supporting players are similarly vivid. . . . As for Capt. Early, Smiley refuses to make him a simple villain. Her increasingly nuanced portrait reveals a man who suffers as much for his dreams as his wife does for her lack of them. It’s this respect for the dignity of human struggle that makes Private Life at once unsettling and strangely uplifting.”
—Elysa Gardner, USA Today 

“A fine portrait. . . . Family relationships [are] depicted with a kind of loving frankness, a relish for their imperfections that acknowledges their capacity to sustain. . . . The narrative also makes room for comedy and minute social observation . . . Smiley unfussily and conscientiously enters a world beyond our experience and humanizes it, inhabiting it herself in order to allow us to follow her. . . . Andrew himself is an extraordinary creation . . . Smiley’s great achievement in a novel characterized by the quiet stillness of its depths is to thicken her narrative and empty it out at the same time. World events come and go, while Margaret’s isolation and her inability to act as participant rather than observer become steadily more pronounced. It is here that we can see the distinctiveness and refinement of Jane Smiley’s brand of realism. . . . What elevates this tale of a blisteringly unhappy marriage into something far more compelling and tragic is Smiley’s willingness to blend acute sympathy with outright absurdity and to juxtapose the relentless rigidity of human nature with the chanciness of the contexts it is required to accommodate. [Private Life] should only enhance Smiley’s reputation as one of the most innovative and accomplished writers currently at work.”
—Alex Clark, The Times Literary Supplement 

“A powerful turn-of-the-last-century American novel in both chronology and style. . . . Smiley has tried her hand at historical novels before but, at bottom, she has always been a master chronicler of the climate changes in relationships—I think especially of her great, great novella, The Age of Grief. Here, her compelling story about a long marriage has an Edith Wharton, Henry James feel of sinister delicacy about it. . . . A wistful and beautifully observed novel.”
—Maureen Corrigan, NPR’s “Fresh Air”  

“Brilliant . . . Set against the panorama of an America that emerges from the post-Civil War period into a world of discovery and invention. [Margaret Early’s] life is caught up in and buffeted by events as various as the Louisiana Purchase Exposition, the San Francisco earthquake, and the post-Pearl Harbor internment of Japanese immigrants and their children. Culture and politics are woven into the fabric of the story, not just as fascinating background, but as pressure on Margaret’s marriage. . . . A portrait of a woman suffocated by marriage with a man of distorted intellectualism and cold self-absorption. Nothing in this novel is easy or obvious or familiar. No adultery, no abuse, no abandonment. Private Life is a story of immense originality and insight. It is served well by the fascinating era in which it is set, and most of all by Smiley’s wit and erudition.”
—Sandra Scofield, The Philadelphia Inquirer 
“The breadth of Jane Smiley’s subject matter has always been astonishing—she’s written novels about farming, horse training, Hollywood and university life, and nonfiction books and essays about child rearing, impulse buying and dressing. In her 13th novel, Private Life, the Pulitzer Prize–winning author of A Thousand Acres takes that breadth and applies it temporally, chronicling a woman’s life from the 1880s to World War II. The result is a novel rich in setting and scope. The novel begins in 1883 in Missouri with Margaret Mayfield, who is considered nearly an old maid at 27. Through creative matchmaking, she’s married off to Captain Andrew Jackson Jefferson Early . . . Smiley’s main theme is the circumscribed life of a married woman at the turn of the century. Margaret’s plight is worsened by her obsessive, intellectual, ravenously egotistical husband . . . Andrew, with his passion for ideas, none of which pan out, emerges as one of Smiley’s strongest characters. . . . As Margaret manages to gain some sliver of freedom, the overwhelming feeling for her and the reader is one of regret and loss associated with a narrowly lived life. When Margaret says, ‘There are so many things that I should have dared before this,’ the reader can only nod her head in agreement.”
—Nina Schuyler, San Francisco Chronicle 

“Brilliant . . . Private Life is a powerful, challenging and, ultimately, fierce work of fiction, a masterpiece of a novel that stands with the best of Smiley’s work. It spans more than half a century, from the early 1880s to the attack on Pearl Harbor, revealing—not just in the details of everyday life but even in its style and narrative—the changes in the US during that time. Yet as we move from a world that would have been familiar to Louisa May Alcott—through scenes reminiscent of Booth Tarkington or Theodore Dreiser and into the darker intimacies of the 1940s—it is Margaret’s life we follow, a life that is self-limiting and almost entirely unexpressed. All around her, fascinating creatures—her reporter friend, Dora, a shadowy figure named Pete, the enigmatic Kimura family—live out their destinies, but Margaret remains locked in a nightmarish marriage . . . Private Life reminds us that, for many, that holy sacrament was, and continues to be, a matter of solemn duty, where the strongest or most generous of the partners relinquishes all hope of self-realization in order to perpetuate a tired and unrealistic institution.”
—John Burnside, The Guardian (UK) 
“Smiley may have been born a century too late. Her best novels fit into the grand 19th-century tradition, with plenty of description, a sweeping view of history, characters from varied social classes, a strong sense of morality and an emphasis on the importance of the inner life. Private Life is one of her best novels. It follows Margaret Mayfield, daughter of a Missouri doctor, from her early childhood in the 1880s up through World War II. . . . It isn’t until she’s 27 that she marries a rich young astronomer with enough psychological problems for the two of them. . . . To a large extent, Private Life is a study of marriage and its drawbacks. In both tone and subject matter it’s easy to hear echoes of Middlemarch . . . Smiley’s sympathies are clearly with Margaret, but she doesn’t turn [her husband] into a pure villain: He’s right as often as he’s wrong, although nobody wants to listen to him. . . . Their lives are touched by history in believable ways: The San Francisco earthquake and fire of 1906 affect their family and friends, and the internment of the Japanese in the 1940s changes their lives even more radically. Smiley’s tone throughout the novel is compassionate, detached, and a little wry, keeping the events of these private lives in perspective without minimizing their importance to the characters themselves.”
—Margaret Quamme, The Columbus Dispatch 
“A book whose enormous power sneaks up on you. . . . What gives this painful story of an unhappy marriage its depth is Smiley’s refusal to assign blame. Despite his foolishness and pomposity, Andrew is not a villain. Nor is Margaret blameless. . . . Unlike so many contemporary novels, which start out sure-footed but eventually lose focus, this novel keeps getting better. It’s only May, but I am ready to place Private Life on my list of best books for 2010.”
—Nan Goldberg, Newark Star-Ledger 

“A chilling tale, quietly absorbing . . . Though the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair, the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, and the jailing of Japanese-Americans in World War II all figure prominently in Private Life, the title is right for a novel about spouses who grow further apart each year.”
—Craig Seligman, Bloomberg News
“Though touched by big events—the St. Louis World’s Fair, the San Francisco earthquake, World Wars I and II—Smiley’s story is primarily one of inner life. Its protagonist, Margaret, manages to be both exquisitely observant and dreamily self-contained. . . . A great deal does go on, distantly felt by Margaret, while her real interest, like ours, lies in the inner workings of her private life, which, for all its ostensible ordinariness, is rendered extraordinarily by Smiley’s subtle art. Along with the perfectly calibrated impressions and perceptions that so profoundly involve us in Margaret’s character and all that happens to her, Smiley gives us a convincing sense of life in Margaret’s time and place; every detail—the clothes and habits, news and rumors, passing fads and personalities—appears as casually as a natural occurrence. . . . Like The Stone Diaries (and Evan Connell’s Mrs. Bridge and Kate Chopin’s The Awakening, which it also resembles in many ways), Private Life is a story of emerging consciousness—a story of coming of age late in life. Like these others, Smiley’s book might also be seen as a feminist work—but only insofar as feminism is understood as concerned with the basic humanity of women.”
—Ellen Akins, Minneapolis Star-Tribune 

“Invites comparisons to Edith Wharton . . . Persuasive . . . Aside from a dissection of a marriage over the course of half a century, Private Life is also a character study of Andrew—a vain, grandiose, although, it seems at first, well-regarded Navy astronomer who in time turns to physics. . . . Margaret, too, is a character study—of a woman who has embraced her culture’s notion of feminine virtue. . . . Duly gathering knitting circles and pursuing charity work, she also swallows any negative thoughts about her husband, whose theories she at least officially supports. Towards the end of the novel her disillusionment is total. . . . This is able storytelling, with a wide cast of ancillary characters who are each well drawn . . . The period details are well chosen and not heavy-handedly stuffed in. As in all good historical novels, history itself perks along in the background, including the two world wars, while the personal—private life—takes center stage. Feminist in the best sense, Private Life examines a certain variety of marriage, a union that contemporary women would flee in a heartbeat but exactly one of a sort that legions of women in times past have endured to the grave.”
—Lionel Shriver, Financial Times 

“Smiley tells her story precisely. . . . Private Life has a stunning specificity of detail. . . . Husband and wife are three-dimensional, alive and memorable in the way characters in fiction and people in biographies so rarely are. The secondary characters are portrayed vividly.”
—Betsy Willeford, The Miami Herald
“A brilliant study of a woman whose limited freedoms circumvent the Suffragette movement at the beginning of the 20th century, and predate the second-wave feminism of the 1970s. . . . A romantic [backdrop] of astronomical mysteries and the astonishing scientific discovery of ‘double stars’ which whirl in tandem . . . frames deep family discontents and marital dysfuntions among [Private Life’s] characters, who live like fallen beings on earth in the lonely expanse of rural Missouri. The double stars, which spin uncontrollably on their axes, become a sinister motif as Margaret and Andrew’s marriage progresses through the early 20th century, leaving both spinning in their own adjacent inner worlds. . . . While Margaret’s mother appears at times to resemble Jane Austen’s Mrs. Bennet, Andrew is no Darcy. His cold formality does not hide a passion burning beneath, but an even colder inner core. His astronomy career begins promisingly but wilts, partly through professional jealousies which include, most amusingly, a campaign to expose Albert Einstein as a charlatan. . . . Smiley offers an alternative version of female liberty in her sister-in-law, Dora, an unmarried journalist who travels to the front line . . . Margaret’s late realization of her [own] failure to strike out for the same kind of freedoms is the book’s greatest tragedy.”
—Arifa Akbar, The Independent (UK)
“This tale of the slow realization of monumental error is a variant of the Dorothea and Casaubon story in George Eliot’s Middlemarch. . . . From being merely self-centered, Andrew becomes a monster whose delusions know no bounds. Smiley traces this change with such skill that reading about it becomes ever more gripping . . . 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. . . . 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. [Private Life] compels attention, not least for its account of an era of American history.”
—Claire Hopley, The Washington Times 
Private Life evokes the marriage between a bright but stifled woman from small-town Missouri and an astronomer whose scientific obsession—itself a fascinating window into American intellectual history—takes on a sinister cast in the years leading up to World War II.”
—Megan O’Grady, Vogue

“I have a friend who reads novels just for the facts. She wants to know how to build an igloo, what food people ate in 17th-century Iceland, and the way an internal-combustion engine works. She’ll love Private Life,’ covering 60 years and two world wars and stuffed with information about earthquakes, astronomy, farming, and plagues. . . . In 1883, Margaret is a young Missouri farm girl who witnesses a hanging; she loses both her brothers; her father commits suicide . . . Against expectations, she marries Captain Andrew Early, an astronomer with a dazzling reputation. . . . Hampered by such a hopeless, hapless husband, Margaret seeks out her fellow Missourian, Dora, a reporter, world traveler, feminist, who becomes an adventurous foil to Margaret . . . To the delight of the reader, Smiley even allows [Margaret] a romance. Her circle widens. . . . ‘You go, girl!’ we cheer when she realizes ‘marriage was relentless and terrifying.’ ‘Yes!’ we shout when she discovers letters revealing Andrew’s mother had handpicked the local spinster as the ‘harmless but useful’ caretaker for her precious son. . . . By the end, the reader has a sense of lives lived, of the slide from one century to the next. However complicated and different this mismatched pair—the husband so loud, the wife so quiet—we appreciate their careful portraits. . . . Margaret earn[s] our hard-won sympathy and our fondness.”
—Mameve Medwed, The Boston Globe 

 “Smiley’s eye is keen, and the book’s historical pageant is often mesmerizing and often elegantly composed—and yet Private Life leaves you thinking about its smaller events rather than its large ones. . . . A quiet tragedy.
—Moira Macdonald, The Seattle Times

“The story, from childhood to old age, of Margaret Early, nee Mayfield, raised in Missouri in the late 19th century and saved from spinsterhood by a late marriage at 27 to U.S. Navy Capt. Andrew Early. . . . Andrew is actually a fascinating blowhard who takes it upon himself to rebut Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity. It’s one of many well-drawn characters in the book along with Margaret’s lifelong friend Dora, who is everything she is not: bold, rebellious, and worldly. . . . Smiley is a wonderful writer. The way she renders Margaret’s sudden epiphany that her longtime husband is a fool is powerful. And she perfectly captures the giddy freedom of what it would be like for a 19th-century woman to ride a bicycle for the first time, or what bitter winters felt like in the age of fireplaces, and even the sensual pleasure of flipping through a book. These are writerly gems . . . Smiley creates a convincing, nuanced portrait of a woman’s life when women had few options. And Margaret is a sympathetic character.”
—Michael Hill, San Diego Union-Tribune 
“An austere sweep of a novel that follows the fortunes of a dysfunctional marriage from the 1880s to the 1940s and has more than a hint of George Eliot’s Middlemarch. . . . Clever, beautifully written.”
—Christina Hardyment, The Times Saturday Review (London)

“Jane Smiley has never been one for the small story. . . . The title of this latest novel may contradict [her] sense of expansiveness, hinting at a more miniature view of the world through the private life of a marriage. But that is, of course, one of the biggest stories to be told. And Smiley tells it against the backdrop of huge world events. . . . Like Little Women, Smiley’s tale focuses on the marriage prospects and successes of three sisters . . . Romances traditionally end when the heroine says, ‘I do.’ Smiley pulls back the curtain to expose what happens after that acceptance. . . . The consequences of a bad marriage may not always be so tragic, but, Smiley seems to be saying, the waste of time, the waste of a life, the regret of never speaking up, of never walking away, are just as terrible a price to pay. Smiley is never hectoring or didactic: indeed, she weaves a truly spellbinding web as gently and as innocently as any unseen spirit might.”
—Lesley McDowell, The Scotsman
“[A] provocative social document that makes us rethink the ways we remember the past. . . . Richly detailed . . . A bloody-minded historical fiction of the sort that only Smiley can write . . . [Private Life] is capable of evoking moments of deep sympathy and tenderness for its heroine. Included in Margaret’s tale are harrowing descriptions of the San Francisco fire and earthquake; the 1918 influenza pandemic and the U. S. internment of Japanese Americans during the Second World War. All these disasters impinge on Margaret, whose private life is the true historical event in Smiley’s narrative. . . . Smiley is a wizard at describing Margaret’s emotional states, her early spunk and the subtle nature of Margaret’s reawakening after the dimming down of her energy and desire when she is married. . . . I read parts of Smiley’s novel to my mother and, afterward, we found ourselves wondering about our dead female relatives. . . . They lived, they sorrowed; maybe now we understand them a little better than before.”
—Susan Swan, The Globe and Mail (Canada)

“Smiley roars [in this] scarifying tale of stifling marriage and traumatizing losses. Bookish, shrewdly observant Margaret Mayfield discomfits most men in turn-of-the-20th-century Missouri, but she needs to get married. . . . The best bookish Margaret can do is Andrew Early, whose checkered intellectual career is about to take him to a naval observatory in California. He’s graceless and self-absorbed, but perhaps it’s enough that he and Margaret share a fascination with ‘the strange effervescence of the impending 20th century.’ It isn’t. During the years 1905 to 1942, we see Margaret increasingly infuriated by the subordination of her life to Andrew’s all-consuming quest to find order in [the] universe . . . Their disparate responses to the death of Andrew’s mother in the 1906 earthquake and of their infant son (the latter among the saddest pages Smiley has ever written) begin Margaret’s alienation. . . . The novel closes with Margaret at last asserting herself, but that hardly makes up for a lifetime of emotions suppressed and chances missed. Rage and bitterness may not be the most comfortable human emotions, but depicting them takes Smiley’s formidable artistry to its highest pitch. Her most ferocious novel since the Pulitzer Prize–winning A Thousand Acres, and every bit as good.”
 —Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

“A subtle and thoughtful portrayal of a woman’s inner strength, [Private Life] may especially appeal to readers who have enjoyed Marilynne Robinson’s recent Gilead and Home. . . . In 1905 Missouri, quiet 27-year-old Margaret Mayfield marries Capt. Andrew Jackson Jefferson Early, a naval officer and an astronomer who is considered a genius and a little odd. By the time they make their way by train to their new life in California, the reader understands that Captain Early is actually somewhat crazy in his obsessions. . . Their lives together grow more troubled [and] Smiley reminds us how difficult it was for all but the boldest women to extract themselves from suffocating life situations 100 years ago. While dealing with intimate matters, this novel also has an epic sweep, moving from Missouri in the 1880s to the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, up to the Japanese internment camps of World War II, with the scenes from Margaret’s Missouri childhood reminiscent of Willa Cather.”
—Leslie Patterson, Library Journal

“The Pulitzer Prize–winning author offers a cold-eyed view of the compromises required by marriage while also providing an intimate portrait of life in the Midwest and West during the years 1883-1942. By the time she reaches the age of 27, Margaret Mayfield has known a lot of tragedy in her life. . . . Her strong-minded mother, Lavinia, knows that her daughter’s prospects for marriage are dim and takes every opportunity to encourage Margaret’s friendship with eccentric scientist Andrew Early. . . . As Smiley covers in absorbing detail both private and world events . . . she keeps at the center of the narrative Margaret’s growing realization that she has married a madman and her subsequent attempts to deal with her marriage . . . Smiley casts a gimlet eye on the institution of marriage even as she offers a fascinating glimpse of a distant era.” 
—Joanne Wilkinson, Booklist

Author Q&A

Q: Some of the characters in Private Life are based in part on members of your own family—your main character Margaret Mayfield on your great aunt, Frances See and Andrew Early on her infamous scientist husband Thomas Jefferson Jackson See, a naval astronomer whose increasingly implausible theories made him an outcast in the scientific community. Did you ever meet them?
A: I didn’t know my aunt at all, or her husband. She died when I was about two or three. She was my grandfather’s much older sister—he was the youngest of ten children and she was number two or three. But my mother and her siblings were quite fond of her. As for her husband, they thought he was just an eccentric family uncle, and I don’t think they realized how infamous he was in the physics establishment.
Q: How much of Margaret and Andrew draw from your aunt and uncle’s actual experience and how much is purely fictional?

A: There were only a few family stories that revealed personal details about them—for example that she drove an elderly Franklin and had a good sense of humor. My mother had visited her in the nineteen-forties, I think, and she remembered that my aunt loved Oriental art (a trait she shares with my character Margaret Mayfield). But almost everything else about Margaret is made up. I could not seem to get her sense of humor into the novel—the material was just too dark for me. My uncle is more famous, and there were plenty of stories about him—almost all of them revealing him as appallingly egomaniacal and obsessed. There was an article about him in a physics journal which described him, essentially, as the kind of scientist you were not supposed to be.  

The important thing to remember is that Margaret and Andrew take some of their inspiration from these real people, but the story about them—that is, the plot of the novel—is entirely made up by me. All of the other characters and all of the events of the novel are fictional. For me, the center of the idea was in wondering what it would be like to be married to someone like Andrew, but there was no family evidence to say how my great-aunt felt about it. Just as one example, I had to prune both Margaret’s and Andrew’s family trees—both had countless brothers and sisters that would overwhelm a 300-page novel. I also had to concoct a fascinating mother for Andrew—but Mrs. Early is a theory on my part, not a portrait of anyone related to Thomas Jefferson Jackson See. While I was working on the novel, I thought of Henry James, and his fear of “developments”—that the inspiring material would proliferate and get out of control.  

I was also interested in the idea of Missouri and St. Louis at the end of the 19th century, after the Civil War and around the time of the World’s Fair.  St. Louis is a beautiful but strange city. Because of climate and epidemics of disease, in the mid-19th century, it was considered one of the worst places in the U.S. to live, but it was actually very cosmopolitan and self-satisfied, with beautiful architecture and thriving commerce. Right in the center of things for some decades.

Q: Did you have to do any research into their lives? Into the science and astronomy that Andrew studies? Or the historical events this novel spans?
A: I visited their house in Vallejo and also Mare Island, where the U.S. Navy had a base and a ship-building yard from about 1850 through the Second World War, twice, and I also read about See. His Moon Capture theory was included in a book about the moon that was published a few years ago. He is a presence on the Web, but he is still considered too “Newtonian” to be respected for anything. The scandals in Dr. Andrew Early’s life are somewhat similar to the scandals in Dr. See’s life. The key for me was in trying to see things through his point of view—to make a logic system that made sense to him even though it didn’t make sense to anyone else. I think that it is easy for a novelist to understand a conspiracy theorist—the story gets bigger and bigger, and it all just fits together in one’s mind. The person creating the story simply cannot understand why it doesn’t make sense to others. I think the most telling article for me was a piece See published in the San Francisco Examiner called “The Ether Exists and I Have Seen It.” The article was from about 1925, and included six pointed figures See had drawn. Even to an English major like me, this was absurd. However, I think that if he were still alive, he would insist that he had predicted the discovery of Dark Matter.

Q: This novel spans a large period of time (from 1883 to 1942, so from post-Civil War Missouri to mid-twentieth century California) and is filled with the rather epic, and public, transformative events of the last century.  Why did you decide to title it Private Life?

A: The events are important, but what I was interested in was how a person lives through them and experiences them—how she interacts with them, and what they feel like and mean to her. The other important thing is how they open her up. As I have gotten older, I think that public events have gone deeper for me and had more meaning. For Margaret, the dangers of various public events open her up in a way that she doesn’t quite understand. I think one part of the movement of the book is how she comes to understand a pivotal public event she experienced in her early years.

Q: The great San Francisco earthquake features prominently in this novel. Why did you decide to include that event and make it loom so large in the lives of your characters?

A: I had to include it because it was there—Margaret and Andrew move to Mare Island, and they could not have lived there and not experienced the earthquake, so I was obliged to put it in. But that’s a thing I love about writing novels—you start out with a fairly small idea and then life intrudes, and you have to accommodate it and make something of it. You don’t exactly know what you are doing, so you do something, and it feels right or wrong. In this case, the loss of a main character in the earthquake felt right—and how that loss affects Margaret and Andrew together is a telling aspect of their relationship.

Q: You have described this novel as “A parable of American life.”  What do you mean by that?

A: Andrew is a famous man and a genius. His town is proud to have produced him, and he is very conscious of his Americanness—he is the new man from the new world in the new century. And then he isn’t. But he never loses that sense of entitlement. Margaret seems to me like many well-meaning Americans who are caught up in the schemes of our more grandiose and overbearing citizens. What are they doing? How should we feel about it? Should we stop them? Can we stop them? If we can’t stop them, then what? When the people around you consider themselves visionaries, then you are in part responsible for their actions. That’s what I mean by her marriage being a parable of American life.

Q: You open the novel with the following quote from Rose Wilder Lane, “In those days all stories ended with the wedding.” Why this quote?

A: Rose Wilder Lane wrote a book about growing up in 19th century Missouri called Old Home Town. She was an interesting woman in many ways—she was the daughter of Laura Ingalls Wilder, and a very busy, well traveled, and prolific newspaperwoman, beginning in about 1900. Some people think that she ghost-wrote the Little House series—if not, then she certainly helped write it. She later became a libertarian, and one of the originators of modern Libertarianism. If you look at her picture, she has a plain but interesting face. I used her as the inspiration for the character of Dora and adopted her into the rich side of my St. Louis family, and set her up in a house by Forest Park, and sent her to Europe. I am very fond of Dora, and I think she represents a certain type of liberated woman of her day.
The essential question of the book, I think, is “what does marriage mean?” In those days, the choices were pretty stark, and so there are several different marriages in the novel. Margaret’s sisters are desirable—Beatrice because she has a claim to a large property and Elizabeth because she is young and charming and has good connections. Dora and Margaret are less desirable, and so the one has a subtly arranged marriage, and the other takes advantage of Progressivism to not get married at all. But the previous generation suffers, too—Dora’s mother is held in contempt by her husband and Margaret’s mother is widowed early and suffers considerable hardship both married and as a widow. So the real theme of the novel is marriage—who do you marry, how is the marriage to be lived through, what does it feel like to, more or less, place a bet and then live with the consequences?

Actually, most women’s stories BEGIN with the wedding, but that’s not the story most novels that Margaret might have been reading addressed. Even now, the novels that continue to be most beloved, like Pride and Prejudice, end with the wedding. For Margaret, reading does not offer her a way to think about her life as it changes or the problems that the 20th century presents. I don’t think these issues have disappeared, either. Marriage is more of a choice now, but the issue of how do you co-exist for a long time with someone who may be very idiosyncratic is still a big one.

Q: In Private Life you capture how men’s lives have a way of taking over women’s and then you give us Dora Bell, Margaret’s brother-in-law’s sister who is such a wonderful character and in many ways Margaret’s opposite.  She is a writer who bucks convention, always speaks her mind, travels the world, doesn’t marry.  Did you want to offer a flip side to Margaret’s married life?

A: Dora is a girl her mother despairs of, who is simply too unorthodox and plain to find a regular husband. What is she going to do? Well, one thing she is going to do is have a sense of style. Another thing she is going to do is see the world, and still another is not be told what to do. I think one thing that happens to everyone that is fascinating is that we see the lives of our friends diverging from and contrasting to our own lives, and we contemplate the contrasts, and what they say about our friends and about ourselves. The counterpart of Dora is Pete, a somewhat suspicious character she brings into Margaret’s life. He is Russian and has gained and lost several fortunes. I wanted Pete and Dora to represent another side of life as it was being lived a hundred years ago—dangerous, exciting, and dramatic.

Q: Can you tell us a little about the Kimuras and the role they come to play in Margaret’s life?

A: My great Aunt loved moving from Missouri to California, and one of the reasons was that she came to love Japanese and Chinese art. I share her fascination with those paintings and prints. To me they are much more mysterious and grand than European art—not in size, but in concept. For Margaret, her interest in Japanese art is a way of possessing something, but because Andrew considers her his possession, it backfires as the war approaches. There was a small neighborhood in Vallejo known as Japantown, and the Japanese presence in San Francisco and in California as a whole has always been very important culturally, as well as politically charged. I tried to imagine a set of characters that would be realistically alluring for someone like Margaret, who would serve as a contrast to her life, but also have their own story. What actually happens between Margaret, Pete, Andrew, and the Kimuras is entirely made up, since I knew nothing about my aunt’s love for Japanese and Chinese art other than that is existed.

Q: Andrew has all sorts of paranoid theories but he has a particular obsession with Albert Einstein who he believes is a fraud and also believes has come to California to spy on him (and on America).  Why is he so fixated on Einstein?

A: I think if someone feels himself to be a great genius, then he is ready to joust with the one whom he considers his most dangerous rival. No one in Andrew’s life considers Andrew and Einstein to be on a par—except, of course, for Andrew. He becomes fixated on Einstein because he simply cannot accept Einstein’s ideas and can’t figure out how to stop them. He sees himself as a Lone Ranger type, preserving the truth from the encroachments of idiocy. There are so many novels and non-fiction works about geniuses who were right in the end. But what if the genius is not right in the end? There are more of those and Andrew is in that camp for certain.
Q: Margaret has a hazy memory of being taken, as a child age five, by her brother to a public hanging. The hanging, which she claims not to recall in any detail, is mentioned in passing several times during this novel and then comes to feature prominently at the novel’s end.  What about this formative event in her life made you want to return to it as a kind of bookend to her story?
A: I think the hanging stands for all the traumas of Margaret’s not very unusual Missouri childhood that she had to endure without really processing. She has no way to process it, really, except to sort of avoid trouble. And it’s not only the hanging itself, which is traumatic, but a moment during the hanging that only happened by chance that is in some sense the most traumatic. But she is expected to deal with it and go on—everyone else does, don’t they?

Q: Having grown up in Missouri, like Margaret, and eventually settling in Northern California, do you feel a particular affinity for the places in this novel? How has this particular geography shaped your own life?

A: Missouri is a strange and beautiful state, and has produced some interesting writers—Twain, of course, T.S. Eliot, Langston Hughes, Kate Chopin, Evan S. Connell. Tennessee Williams grew up there. There are lots of us. Missouri is where the East and the West and the South bang together, and co-exist in a beautiful landscape. Missouri is always a little behind the times and a little ahead of the times—your sense of being cosmopolitan comes from history.
I love California. It is far far away and right in the center of things all at once. California is in some ways incomprehensible, but I love having the opportunity to think about it. At one point, Margaret reads Two Years Before the Mast by Richard Henry Dana, Jr. In that account, California is utterly mysterious and remote, and twenty years later, it had been entered and settled. I still feel that sense of the wild and the known when I look out my windows.
Q: Even with all their flaws do you feel a certain affection for Margaret and Andrew?

A: I am fond of Margaret, and I sympathize with her from beginning to end—I think she is a tragic figure. She is generous and kind and well-intentioned, and as her friends say, a good person. She’s also intelligent. She reads newspapers and books and tries to do the right thing. But she is never equipped by the standard wisdom of her day (given to her by relatives and friends) to understand either her husband or herself. I think this is true, in fact, of us, too. It is part of the human condition to be always trying to put two and two together when in fact the numbers, unbeknownst to you, are three and four, not two and two, and just when you’ve come up with the answer, you realize that it’s wrong. Can a normal woman be a tragic figure in literature, and not merely a “poor thing”? I would like to think so.  But the one I really, and somewhat surprisingly came around to understanding better was Andrew. He is appalling in his way, but, while I don’t agree with him, and would run the other direction if he came into the room, I see his point of view. How can he not engage in his passion? How can he not attempt, over and over, to take lemons and make lemonade? His mind is always working, but his ego is always working, too. That’s the sad thing.

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