Private Life, By Jane Smiley

Intimate details illuminate a bigger picture
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The Independent Culture

Two world wars and a series of major scientific discoveries form the backdrop to this story of one American woman's life, from 1883 to 1942.

Aged 27, Margaret Mayfield marries Captain Early, an astronomer with a doomed ambition to be a physicist. One feels some sympathy for him, while reserving greater sympathy for Margaret, trapped in a loveless, childless marriage, her estrangement from her husband widening as his behaviour gets ever more unreasonable. We see Margaret growing older, wiser and more disillusioned, as her friends, family and country age and change. Poignant, empathetic, sometimes funny, it ranks alongside Arnold Bennett's The Old Wives' Tale as a domestic story with an epic sweep.