I started reading Jane Smiley with great enthusiasm over twenty years go. I enjoyed her short story collection “The Age of Grief” and her novellas “Ordinary Love and Good Will”, and I really loved “A Thousand Acres”. But then came “Moo” and I began to feel that Jane's time in Ames, Iowa had made her a little more interested in farming and animals than I was, and I moved on to other authors.
But recently she published a new novel called Private Life that sounded intriguing. It follows the life of Margaret Mayfield from her childhood in post-Civil War Missouri, to her marriage to Captain Andrew Jackson Jefferson Early and their married life in northern California at the Mare Island naval station and nearby Vallejo. Woven into the story are many historical events, from the 1906 San Francisco earthquake to the Japanese internment camp at Tanforan Racetrack in 1942.
But when I find an historical novel enjoyable it's not because the history is good; it's because the story is good. (“Half of a Yellow Sun” is a successful recent example of this). And this is the story of a remarkably uninteresting woman and a remarkably unlikeable man, and it didn't work for me. Not that I have anything against unlikeable characters. Sam Pollitt in Christina Stead's powerful “The Man Who Loved Children” (see my blog) was, like Andrew Early, a narcissistic gasbag in love with his own cockeyed theories and delusional ideas, but Stead created family members who clashed with his monstrous ego and then spun off in all directions. But Margaret Early does little more than wring her hands. I'm sure I'm meant to admire her growing self-awareness and independence, but by then she's sixty-four and I've had to endure thirty years of this dysfunctional marriage.
Strangely enough, this story made me think of “Middlemarch”. Remember how Dorothea puts up with that drip Mr. Casaubon for far too long? But she does eventually come to her senses and leave. I wish Margaret had read George Eliot.