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This historical novel set between 1883 and 1942 in the US is a story of an unhappy marriage. It is a slow paced novel of thoughts and feelings, with significant historical events forming the backdrop for Margaret's private life, but I thought it was beautifully written and thoughtful.
Margaret's widowed mother is keen to see her three daughters marry well, and relieved when Margaret, the oldest, finally marries at the old age of 27, to Captain Early, a naval officer and scientific genius. She looks forward to having children, but a miscarriage is followed by a sickly baby who only lives for a few weeks. Meanwhile, she learns how her marriage was engineered by her husband's mother and her own. Andrew is an eccentric with a talent for alienating people - the man once regarded as a scientific genius in their Missouri hometown turns out to be just a mad scientist and not a very good one.
There are many things to like about this novel despite the atmosphere of boredom and frustration, as Margaret is trapped in a stultifying marriage. I enjoyed the California setting as the couple move to Vallejo near San Francisco and the dry wit with which Smiley highlights the contradictions of Margaret's life. Margaret is a warm, caring person and she makes friends outside the home, including the single career woman Dora and the Japanese Kimura family. I liked the way Margaret retained and developed the ability to think for herself and question her husband's prejudices. I was very moved by the account of the birth and short life of Margaret's son and her difficulties breastfeeding him. I loved the detailed portrayal of social attitudes, including those in Margaret's family.
There is lots to think about in the novel - when Margaret was 8, the deaths of two of her brothers, one in an accident, one from illness, were followed by her father's suicide. Yet her mother's response to this tragedy is actually one of being liberated - she has been ill with grief for months, now she is free to move the family back to her father's house and bring them up to marry. Another little comment by Smiley is to have Margaret reading aloud the work of Kate Chopin, since rediscovered by generations of 20th century feminists, to her mother and sisters.
Readers looking for an action packed plot and a fast pace will be disappointed by this book, but I am really pleased to have had the chance to read it and would recommend it to those who like books in which not much seems to happen.
This review first appeared in a slightly different form at www.Librarything.com. I received my copy of Private Life free through the Early Reviewers scheme on Librarything in which publishers give away books in exchange for reviews. Faber and Faber's cover price is £12.99, and at time of writing Amazon sells it for £7.78.