Writers on the Record Critic's Choice Free Recommended

When: Thu., May 20, 6 p.m. 2010

Jane Smiley discusses her latest novel, Private Life, in a conversation with arts journalist Victoria Lautman. The interview will be broadcast on WFMT 98.7 PM on Sun 5/23, noon. Private Life (Knopf), the latest novel by Pulitzer Prize winner Jane Smiley, is a lyrically written, intimate chronicle of an unhappy marriage, set against American historical events—from the rise of the labor movement in the late 1800s to the start of World War II—that simultaneously reflect and affect her characters. Groomed for a life of convention and compromise, Missourian Margaret Mayfield accepts an offer of marriage from the eccentric local "genius"—a naval officer and astronomer named Andrew Jackson Jefferson Early. Andrew's scientific passion is soon exposed as obsession, his confidence as narcissism, and his theories as outmoded, even crackpot. His demands for Margaret's services as cook, chauffeur, secretary, and acolyte slowly overwhelm her time and attention. When she finds a cache of old letters revealing Andrew's true motive for marrying her, Margaret's humiliation and her hatred for her husband come to full flower. And yet Margaret won’t assert herself, much less leave. She continues make do, finding comfort in art and nature and discovering friendship with a Japanese family, a dashing Russian adventurer, and her independent cousin Dora, who embodies everything she can't bring herself to be. Wrenching in its portrayal of unrealized potential, Private Life is also a remarkable tribute to human resilience, endurance, and courage. Its depiction of a cultural milieu in which women were wholly defined by society recalls Jane Austen and Edith Wharton, and its fine rendering of both exterior and interior landscapes reminds me of Willa Cather and Virginia Woolf. —Micki Leventhal

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