private life

Last week’s great read: Private Lives, by Jane Smiley. Smiley’s 2010 novel is a portrait of a woman from St. Louis who marries an eccentric scientist and moves with him to California, spanning from the 1880s through World War II. It is an unusual story in that I have not seen a novel which bridges this particular time period before, and with interesting implications. Smiley’s narrator enters life referencing grandparents’ behavior during and after the Civil War, and her husband’s actions during WWII provides the narrative’s crisis point. Critics also pointed out, correctly, that this is another work in Smiley’s oeuvre examining the sometimes troubled nature of women’s roles in marriage, certainly as it was then structured. Elizabeth is very nearly sent into an arranged marriage, or at the least one without a lot of what we might consider romance. My interest in this novel was also piqued by its location, near San Francisco. Owing to the historical period of this story, the characters are also touched tragically by the great earthquake of 1908. Smiley’s rendering of that event is particularly gripped with despair.

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