Private Life, By Jane Smiley

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The Independent Culture

Travelling from the end of the American Civil War and closing at Pearl Harbour, Smiley's new novel looks at the era through the prism of an unhappy marriage.

Margaret Mayfield, born in Missouri in the 1870s, is on her way to becoming an old maid at the age of 27 when she meets Andrew Early, a seemingly brilliant scientist who never says a word "about his past or his feelings."

From the moment the couple depart for his naval base, the captain's paranoid behaviour confounds his new wife. Years later, Margaret discovers that both her mother and mother-in-law were privy to the nature of Early's mental state before the marriage.

A harrowing portrait of a woman sacrificed on the altar of feminine virtue. Its evocation of late 19th-century American domestic life is superb.