Private Life

By Jane Smiley
(Knopf, Hardcover, 9781400040605, 336pp.)

Publication Date: May 4, 2010

Other Editions of This Title: Compact Disc, Paperback, Paperback, Hardcover

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Description

A riveting new novel from the Pulitzer Prize–winner that traverses the intimate landscape of one woman’s life, from the 1880s to World War II.

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.

Private Life
is a beautiful 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; and, above all, a masterly, unforgettable novel from one of our finest storytellers.




About the Author

Jane Smiley is the author of numerous novels, including A Thousand Acres, which was awarded the Pulitzer Prize, as well as four works of nonfiction. In 2001 she was inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Letters. She received the PEN USA Lifetime Achievement Award for Literature in 2006. She lives in Northern California.




NPR
Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Private Life, the new novel by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Jane Smiley, follows the life of a midwestern woman who moves with her new husband, an astronomer, to California at the start of the 20th century. Reviewer Maureen Corrigan says the story, which spans a half-century, is beautifully observed. More at NPR.org

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Praise For Private Life

“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

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