Less than illuminating

Pulitzer Prize winner Jane Smiley’s new novel Private Life has readers following Margaret Mayfield on a historic trek from a post-Civil War Missouri in the 1880s to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941. A “plain” woman all set for spinsterhood, Margaret winds up married to Capt. Andrew Early instead. He’s a brilliant astronomer, naval officer and desperately selfish man. Their union is basically an advertisement for not getting married. Of course, Smiley uses Margaret’s submission to her fate as a tutorial on how few choices were available to women of that era. The lesson is well-taken but depressing. Along Margaret’s journey, we meet a few surprising characters, like entrepreneurial Pete and journalist sister-in-law Dora, but we want more of them than we get. Even an eleventh-hour plot twist regarding Capt. Early didn’t keep me captured. Smiley is a world-class storyteller, no doubt about it. But something about Private Life was less than illuminating.