Private Life, By Jane Smiley

By Arifa Akbar
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The Independent Culture

The backdrop to Jane Smiley's 11th novel appears to be a romantic one of astronomical mysteries and the astonishing scientific discovery of "double stars" which whirl in tandem. It is made by the naval scholar, Andrew Early, who is married to the book's housewife protagonist, Margaret Mayfield.

As this is a Smiley novel, the celestial world frames deep family discontents and marital dysfuntions among its characters, who live like fallen beings on earth in the lonely expanse of rural Missouri. The double stars, which spin uncontrollably on their axes, become a sinister motif as Margaret and Andrew's marriage progresses through the early 20th century, leaving both spinning in their own adjacent inner worlds.

The relationship matures into one of disappointment for Margaret, while Andrew's astronomical study comes to represent his immutable isolation. The book begins with Margaret's Missouri youth in 1883. As in Smiley's A Thousand Acres, which featured three daughters (as well as The Secret Lives of Dentists, again with three siblings), this novel too has three sisters at its heart. Except that it is the mother who is the linchpin.

Margaret's own father, Dr Mayfield, commits suicide following the sudden deaths of two young sons. The most unremarkable sister, Margaret marries under pressure from her anxious mother, at the grand old age of 27, and soon discovers that married life can be just as lonely as the spinsterhood she has been taught to fear. Here is a brilliant, if merciless, study of a woman whose limited freedoms circumvent the Suffragette movement at the beginning of the 20th century, and predate the second-wave feminism of the 1970s.

The three sisters are groomed for marriage; taught to make jams and cordials and advised that they only need abide by the rules of their husbands "for the first year". Margaret feels the coldness that will lie at the heart of her marriage at her first meeting with Andrew, when he casts his forensic gaze over her. His opening remark launches into "the frigid air like a snowflake". Yet this "pleasing dread" she feels at their impending union almost verges on the sado-masochistic, as if she were colluding in her own self-destruction.

While Margaret's mother appears at times to resemble Jane Austen's Mrs Bennet, Andrew is no Darcy. His cold formality does not hide a passion burning beneath, but an even colder inner core. Smiley lathers on her contempt to almost comic effect. His astronomy career begins promisingly but wilts, partly through professional jealousies which include, most amusingly, a campaign to expose Albert Einstein as a charlatan.

An ever-pliant wife, Margaret allows her freedoms to be restricted, becoming his guide, comforter and amanuensis. Smiley offers an alternative version of female liberty in her sister-in-law, Dora. This unmarried journalist travels to the front line to document women's experiences. Margaret is unable to strike out for the same kind of freedoms, and in her late realisation of this failure is the book's greatest tragedy.