Sunday, November 7, 2010

A Woman's Destiny

Jane Smiley’s latest novel “Private Life” is story about one woman’s life. The story begins in 1883 and closes in 1942 as this country enters World War II. It begins slowly as Margaret Mayfield, the narrator, describes her life in St. Louis. It is the end of the 19th century and life is uncomplicated but sad because of the untimely and surprising deaths that seem to be part of everyday life.
Margaret and her sisters are being trained to be “married” women. A great excitement for Margaret is getting to ride a bicycle when she is in her twenties.

But Margaret the oldest of three sisters is the one still not married. Her mother takes the matter in hand and creates a match for Margaret with Captain Andrew Jackson Jefferson Early, an famed astronomer who is eleven years older than Margaret. And so begins the story of Margaret’s “Private Life”.

The couple move to the Mare Island naval station near Vallejo, California. From the vantage of Mare Island Margaret will watch history unfold. Jane Smiley describes the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire with all its chaos and horror. She follows that with the raging Spanish influenza epidemic, World War I, the stock market crash, Pearl Harbor, the incarceration of the Japanese Americans and finally World War II and the overwhelming it effects in had on the people of California and the country.

Throughout this unfolding history Margaret is trying to understand and live with her husband, a strange man who is “sucking the very air from her life.” As she lives day by day, she cooks, she drives, she types, she listens and slowly she begins to think about her life and to understand a truth she never dared to think about.

Jane Smiley’s cast of characters is a lively and memorable one. The story is one that takes over and urges the reader to find out what she is trying telling us about marriage, women and history.

Unlike Charlotte, (See Blog of "Private Life" July 2010) I enjoyed watching Margaret finally figure it out. Granted, it is a slow and painful process, but not one she was trained to do and it did take, finally, some gumption on her part. And the closing line sums up Margaret, "There are so many things that I should have dared before this."

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