Jane Smiley, like all great writers, can look out at the world from one small private life and reveal a universe to the reader. In her recent 2010 novel, Private Life, she takes her readers on a slow and painfully meticulous journey from 1883 to 1942 as seen through the eyes of a clever but rather plain girl, Margaret, the third child in a family of five. Within the first few pages of the novel, we are informed that Margaret’s two older brothers are dead by the time Margaret is eight, and that her father, a doctor, commits suicide six months after the death of his oldest son. Margaret’s mother, Lavinia, says simply that his suicide had to do with melancholic propensities. Lavinia moves with her three remaining children, all daughters, back to her father’s farm, the practical thing to do, and tells Margaret, “because she was the oldest, that death was the most essential part of life, and that they must make the best of it. Margaret always remembered that.”
It is the subtitle of this excellent novel that gives away the theme: Private Life: Marriage can sometimes be the loneliest place. In a novel whose pace is slow enough to resemble a lived-life, Smiley tells us that Margaret’s younger sisters, Beatrice and Elizabeth, are successfully married off while Margaret, an old maid at twenty-three, is left behind. Margaret is not particularly troubled by her unmarried status, nor is she particularly keen on finding a man, although she is surprised that her feelings are hurt when she overhears her new brother-in-law describe her as forbidding. He continues:
But she never looks at a fellow, and if she makes a mistake and lets him catch her eye, she glares like fury. I don’t know anyone who can stand up to that sort of thing, at least in the beginning.
And then you don’t know what she means half the time. I ask myself once a day, is she making a joke. The fellows can’t take that. It makes them feel thick…A fellow doesn’t want to feel as though a girl is running rings around him, at least not till her marries her.
And then when Margaret is twenty-seven, a brilliant scientist who has for mysterious reasons lost his university position and returned to the small town in Missouri where his mother still lives, takes an interest in her, and rather out of the blue proposes marriage. An astronomer who wonders about the universe but seems rather oblivious to the world around him, Andrew whisks Margaret off to an island off the coast of California where he has access to a small telescope, and there she begins her life as a married woman. Her mother’s parting words as she leaves Missouri, “You’ve always been a good girl, and now you’ve had a piece of luck, marrying at twenty-seven, but a wife only has to do as she’s told for the first year.”
Perhaps Margaret should have listened more carefully to this advice, and also to the veiled implications. It turns out that Andrew is an odd man, socially inept and naïve, “day after day, year after year, he thought only of the universe, which he could not see.”
While Andrew obsesses over his view of the universe and stews in resentment as an alternative view, that of Einstein, comes to prominence, Margaret becomes his audience, his assistant, his typist, eventually his driver. After a miscarriage and then the death within weeks of an infant son, Andrew gives up on both sex and the idea of children and devotes himself with renewed passion to describing his view of the universe. Of course, he expects Margaret to assist him in the writing of his masterpiece and his battle with the fools who fail to understand his brilliance. Andrew’s reaction to the short life and death of their infant son, Alexander, confirms for Margaret in a new way his utter self-absorption. And as she continues to type his manuscript and ferry him around to speaking engagements, she also begins to be aware of the reaction of others to her husband’s work. And then reading a newspaper article in responding to Andrew’s theories, she comes to a new, not quite startling realization.
As she read Mr. Malisoff’s words, she knew what had motivated him to write—Andrew’s blustering, grandiose claims, his circular reasoning. She knew that as well as if God himself had whispered in her ear. Just then, she saw Andrew as the world saw him, and she did it all at once, as if he had turned into a brick and fallen into her lap—who he was that solid and permanent for her—he was a fool.
Much like Kate Chopin’s lead character in The Awakening and so many other women who are faced with the prison of an unhappy marriage, Margaret has now to live with her comprehension. Smiley’s brilliance is in describing in considerable detail the day-to-day struggle of living with a man who is “Opinionated and energetic, loud and forbidding.” Margaret does not walk into the sea, nor does she suddenly throw off the shackles of a loveless marriage, but she does in small ways begin to assert her inner self. And she realizes more and more that she is in an arranged marriage, as certainly as if their had been a bride-price and signing of documents between man and man.
And of course there was no help for it, except recalling bits of conversations she had overheard from time to time about marriage. That’s what knitting groups and sewing groups were for wasn’t it? Commiserating about marriage. But through the years no one had said what she now thought, which was that marriage was relentless and terrifying, and no wonder that when her father died her mother had risen from her bed and gone to work.
There is no happy ending to this book, no dramatic escape into a new world. And yet Margaret does persevere. Coming to understand how she came to be married to this strange obsessed man, how his mother and her mother conspired together to do what they thought best for their offspring, constitutes a kind of freedom. And as she did in A Thousand Acres and so many books since then, Smiley shows us not only the ways in which marriage has been (and still is) a prison for many women, but how strength and endurance can win small victories and point to a new horizon. I find myself uplifted and enlightened by the quiet life of Margaret and rejoicing in her small joys, and stunned once again by the brilliance of Jane Smiley.