Private Life, By Jane Smiley

A woman is torn apart by a megalomaniac husband
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The Independent Culture

Love, declared Ambrose Bierce, is "a temporary insanity, curable by marriage". The American satirist's quip has been turned on its head in Jane Smiley's new novel Private Life. Marriage sets the insanity in stone, as Smiley's narrator, Margaret Mayfield, finds her nuptials allow for little more than a drawn-out postscript to her more independent youth.

In her most famous novel, the Pulitzer-winning A Thousand Acres, Smiley reworked King Lear into a 1980s tragedy played out on a farm in Iowa. Here, she twists Jane Austen's endgame, that of snagging the right chap and reaping the rewards, into a slow dive into the abyss. It is a fine piece of writing but, like an unhappy betrothal, not much fun.

The novel opens in 1942 in a San Francisco riven by wartime tension. It is a prologue that cleverly forewarns the reader of the personal failures to come, before shifting back to Margaret's formative years growing up in the Midwest during the 1880s. From these early days, she quickly learns that men do not provide security. In quick succession, one brother is killed fooling around with explosives, another succumbs to measles and her father takes his shotgun into his office and turns it on himself.

Margaret's foggy recollection of past tragedies is relayed with a confused emotive honesty. Her understanding of her father's suicide echoes to "the sounds of running feet and doors slamming, the whinny of a horse, and a shout either half-rousing her or weaving into her slumber". What is clear is that "there was once again a large closed coffin in the parlor".

The arrival of Captain Andrew Jackson Jefferson Early, US Navy officer and astronomer, allows Margaret to broaden her prospects, from a Midwestern old maid at just 27, to wife of a local hero. Andrew has lectured at the University of Chicago and is pushing his observations to an increasingly sceptical academia. His discoveries – "two suns orbiting each other, rather like a couple spinning in the middle of a dance floor" – could be a metaphor for the pair's relationship: never stationary, never linked, never settled.

The physical and psychological stress that Andrew imposes on Margaret's life is conveyed with claustrophobic intensity. He proves to be more megalomaniacal than professorial as his career becomes diluted by delusions and professional rivalry, until his posting to an observatory on the Californian Mare Island instigates a gradual sidelining of both man and wife. As madness looms, the fractures in the marriage widen, jemmied open not least by Margaret's docile nature and her sad, brief foray into motherhood.

The problems encountered by readers of this novel are drawn from its strict realism. The languorous pace, understandable considering the restraints of the pre-feminist era, can still frustrate, while Margaret's tight-lipped complicity in the events stifle sympathy for her. And the really engaging characters are peripheral: a Russian friend, a sassy female journalist, a kindly Japanese family.

Domestic deterioration aside, Smiley still likes to widen the focus. Marital strife is simply the bitter flavour lacing a heady historical backdrop encompassing the 1906 San Franciscan earthquake, Spanish Flu, the Great War, Pearl Harbor... In fact, there is a lot going on – just not at home.