By 1880s American standards, Margaret Mayfield is an old maid. Both her sisters have married and are starting families of their own, but Margaret, plain and quiet at 27, seems destined for a life at home with her mother.

While riding her bicycle in the fields outside her Missouri town, she meets Captain Andrew Jackson Jefferson Early. A handsome astronomer who believes he’s on the verge of fame and fortune for his brilliant work, he marries Margaret and moves her to the naval base in San Francisco where he manages the observatory. And that’s where the story gets a little weird.

At first, Margaret and Andrew are happy, or at least content; she cooks and cleans, he works and writes. She strives to understand his passionate study of, essentially, air and distant objects in the sky. Through the years, Margaret carves out a life for herself, exploring San Francisco, doing charity work and joining a knitting club (which partakes in the occasional game of poker). She makes friends, the most vibrant of whom is gossipy, tomboyish Dora, a journalist who travels the world in search of her next big story.

But as Margaret broadens her world, Andrew shrinks into his own, shunning friendship in favor of solitary hours of studying the skies. As the years pass, his reticence gives way to eccentricity, then paranoia. With World War II looming, Andrew becomes something much more dangerous—to himself, to Margaret and to everyone they know.

Author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel A Thousand Acres, Jane Smiley again creates in Private Life a quiet, elegant story that is somehow both sweeping and intimate. From the great San Francisco fire of 1906 to the internment camps of World War II, Smiley uses the stormy backdrop of American history to examine one marriage, with its sacrifices both small and great.

comments powered by Disqus