Private Life by Jane Smiley: A Lakeview Branch Book Club Review

Notes from the Lakeview Book Club Discussion of Jane Smiley's novel, Private Life.

Eleven of us had a lively discussion of the 2010 novel, Private Life by Jane Smiley.

Jane Smiley is in her mid-sixties and won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1992 for her novel, A Thousand Acres, which is based on King Lear. She was raised in Missouri and obtained a B.A. from Vassar and her M.A. and M.F.A from the University of Iowa. She had a Fulbright scholarship to Iceland while working on her Doctorate.

None of our group had ever read one of her novels. We learned that Smiley is noted for writing books about families. Our novel, Private Life, is loosely based on the lives of her great-uncle and great-aunt. Her great-uncle was an eccentric scientist and her great-aunt a long suffering wife. In this book those characters were Andrew and Martha.

Almost all of us liked this book. One really did not like it and would not recommend it to others. Those who liked it would only recommend it to certain friends whose reading tastes run to complex novels with history and slow character development. We all agreed that parts of this novel had stand-alone, lyrical passages. Three that were mentioned were the beautiful description of the long bicycle ride down a steep hill, the story of the ducks and Margaret's love for them and finally, the description of the painting Margaret had made of the pond and ducks.

We thought Andrew probably had Asperger's Syndrome. He was a genius who lacked social skills. As the novel slowly revealed his character we thought he was evil, devious, controlling and mentally ill. None of the people in this book were very likeable, though we liked aspects of their characters and choices. Andrew treated his wife as a servant, typist, slave, chauffer and prisoner. Margaret was destined to be an old maid, when she met and fell in love with Andrew. We only, much later in the novel, learned that Margaret and Andrew's mothers secretly set this marriage on it's path, making it essentially an arranged marriage.

This novel was "book-ended" in time, that is, it started during WWII on Mare Island and ended in the extension of that same scene. The rest of the novel went back in time to just after the Civil War and brought us forward. In the 1880s Margaret witnessed a hanging when she was five-years-old. At the end of the novel she discusses it again, wondering if she really witnessed it or just heard about it. This was one of the mysteries in the book for us. Jane Smiley does not explain which was real. We thought that the hanging represented the internal violence in Margaret's life, which she did not understand for most of her life. Was it real or was it something she heard about? Smiley says that some truth is meant to be overheard.

We discussed the title, Private Life. Each person in this novel had a "Private Life," lived side-by-side with others, yet still alone. Margaret was in a social-cultural "cage." She was, for example, a homemaker, who was childless and finally a captive-handmaiden to her husband. We thought we are all are in social-cultural "cages."

Although Andrew was the most defined character, we might have liked him better if we knew more about his inner thinking. We noted that Andrew was not a real scientist, because he published his unproven theories as facts. Some of us commented on the obviously vast research Smiley did on the historical evolution of astronomy to that time. The details and discussions of scientists of those times were fascinating. Much that was held to be true then, has been disproved and subsequently forgotten. It was all new to us!

We discussed what Andrew's problems were besides Asperger's and decided that, although we are not professionals in psychology, we thought he was narcissistic and, therefore, Margaret was codependent. We noted that in Andrew's stalemated career as a Navy Captain, his only real duty was to wind the big clock on Mare Island!

We really liked the descriptions of Mare Island and especially Vacaville during the 1906 earthquake and its aftermath. We noted how it validated the theories of Rebecca Solnit in A Paradise Built in Hell, which we discussed last month. After the earthquake people immediately came to each other's aide in an organized way, only to have this spontaneous, beneficial work wrested from the public by government, much to the harm of the people who needed help!

We also noted that the main characters lived their lives on an island, just like the characters from Sue Monk Kidd's The Mermaid Chair. It must be easier to control a plot if the characters are in a limited space!

We really liked the character of Dora, who was so very independent, and, as one member pointed out, independently wealthy, so she could, therefore, be independent. She was married to her career as a journalist, was brave and strong, yet finally retreated in disillusionment to the country once she figured out how horrible life can be. She had witnessed the aftermath of WWI and the descent into the hell of WWII in Europe.

One member of our group was really upset that Margaret secretly, without permission, read Andrew's letters from his mother. He thought it was a major betrayal, something an honorable person would never do. Others thought it made sense, because Margaret was so isolated and she needed to know what was going on. Certainly the reader would understand nothing of why Margaret's life was so constrained without knowing of Andrew's early life failures and the plotting to obtain the mousey Margaret as a wife for him.

Another member remembered that Margaret's knitting circle had suggested she read Andrew's letters. The knitting group was a reality check and support for Margaret. The knitters explained that disappointment and disillusionment is the outcome of every marriage! (No "happily ever after" in that group!)

While discussing the letters and the insight they brought to Margaret, we compared this part of the story to the story of Bluebeard, the folk tale mass-murderer in a palace, who gave his young bride free reign over her home, except for ONE ROOM. She, of course, finally enters the forbidden room to discover trophies of his murders. Like the nameless heroine of that tale, Margaret broke the taboo of privacy, when she read Andrew's letters. She also discovered his duplicity, flawed life and how trapped she was!

We liked the Russian expatriot, of the many careers, filled with riches and poverty, but we were shocked that Margaret had an affair with hiim (or, rather, a one-time-roll-in-the-hay), which was described in one sentence! We thought by her never succumbing again, Margaret and Jane Smiley kept the novel on a higher plain, where we could focus on larger issues. One member thought that it was completely out of character that Margaret slept with the Russian. It would seem so, but if one consideres that Margaret was much, much younger than her husband and was definitely in a loveless marriage, one might suppose that the hormones got the better of her. Besides our Russian was exotic, fun, smart and sexy. It may have been the perfect storm of desire and opportunity.

We really liked the Japanese family, even though there were mysteries about them. Mrs. Nakamura was so independent as a midwife, driving where she needed to go, but as soon as she went home, she became the subservient housewife! Yikes. Life has to be better now for women!

We were surprised at the ignorance of the times and of some of the women in the novel. Some didn't know how babies were made, even after having a few! We thought it interesting that when Margaret's baby was born and was not healthy that Mrs. Nakmura knew the condition of the baby was fatal, so did not intervene. Now such babies are saved easily, or the condition prevented in prenatal care. In thinking more about those times, we can put some of this in perspective when we realize that penicillan was not found and used until the middle of WWII. Life was a dangerous gamble for all. Much has changed for the better.

We agreed that the Nakamura family were not spies and pointed out that Andrew had many crazy ideas about the state of spies during the war. He even thought he saw his rival, Albert Einstein, wandering the streets of Mare Island. Even in current times, people think spies are everywhere. One member referred back to The Leopard by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, who says that "If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change." Yes, things do change and they still stay the same.

We also liked Lavinia, Andrew's mother, and her very wise aphorisms.

We noted our surprise that religion was not a factor AT ALL in this novel. This was even more surprising to us, since the main characters were from the very religious mid-west, at that time a home of tent revivals and the fear of hell!

Going back to how well the history was written, one member said that there are more history novels now than ever before. Some wondered if that could really be true. If that is true, why is it  true? We agreed that now people have more access to historical documents and can write more accurately about history. Research is easier!

When we discussed the hanging again and how Margaret might have overheard the story instead of witnessing it, we digressed to a short discussion about how communication styles have changed. Maybe in the past people communicated by having a conversation that is supposed to be overheard. We definitely thought that people are more direct now than even a generation ago. On the other hand, one can wax nostalgic about how being less direct was a little more polite than the current in-your-face style we sometimes encounter.

The author Rhoda Broughton was mentioned as one who Margaret liked to read. We knew nothing about her, so I googled her. Rhoda Broughton, 1840-1920, an English author, wrote novels of women who were faster and looser than was acceptable for her time. Broughton complained that people said her early novels were too fast and her later ones too slow. She maintained that the novels were the same. It seems her novels have not stood the test of time the way those written by Kate Chopin or Jane Austen.

We ended with a comment about the income gap of the time. One could know how affluent people were by their parlors! There was one set of people who entertained in the parlor and the others who slept in the parlor. :>

To sum up, most of us liked much about this book. One thought it was too slow and too vague. Others liked that the characters slowly showed their secrets. We liked how Margaret finally, bitterly, understood her life and, most likely, would make steps to be independent from her insane, oppressive husband. We thought the history was thoroughly researched and fascinating. We thought some passages were lyrical and outstanding literature. One member thought this book did not compare well with the gravitas of some of our other book club choices. We agreed! Over all, we may not have loved this title, but most really liked it. The discussion was, as usual, illuminating and fun. We had trouble waiting for our turns, so we jumped in with observations!

Happy Reading!

Mary Farrell


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