Scenes from a marriage

Jane Smiley unwinds a quiet, sprawling portrait of a couple, painfully mismatched but dutifully bound

By Mameve Medwed
Globe Correspondent / May 2, 2010

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I have a friend who reads novels just for the facts. She wants to know how to build an igloo, what food people ate in 17th-century Iceland, and the way an internal-combustion engine works. She’ll love Jane Smiley’s 13th novel, “Private Life,’’ covering 60 years and two world wars and stuffed with information about earthquakes, astronomy, farming, and plagues. Not for her the careful unraveling of character, motivation, interior change or the Eureka moments of the author’s imagination that mark my favorite Smiley books: King Lear transplanted to an Iowa farm in “A Thousand Acres’’; the thorny marriage of two dentists in “The Age of Grief’’; the academic satire of “Moo,’’ so slyly wicked I fell in love with the pig.

It’s harder to develop similar affection for the protagonist of “Private Life,’’ Margaret Mayfield; she is so private, repressed, and lonely. How do you show the boredom of a woman without boring the reader? Even though the self-improving among us can glom onto all that history, others will miss the earth-moving sparks. But it pays to keep going. Despite multiple characters, packed events, and excessive detail (three pages on peddling a new bicycle), the natural passage of time pushes the reader forward.

In 1883, Margaret is a young Missouri farm girl who witnesses a hanging; she loses both her brothers; her father commits suicide for reasons her mother, Lavinia, describes as “melancholic propensities.’’ In an observation that foreshadows her own marriage, Margaret notices that, once widowed, Lavinia, “who had been sickly . . . was a different person. . . . She was entirely dressed, her bed was made, and from that day forward, she never complained again of the headache or anything else.’’

Unlike her two sisters, Margaret seems headed for spinsterhood. Lacking “a female sensibility,’’ she never shed a tear over the deaths of Dickens’s Little Nell or Alcott’s Beth or even when her cat perished in a raccoon trap. In today’s psychologically enlightened world, she might have been diagnosed with low-level Asperger’s.

Against expectations, she marries Captain Andrew Early, an astronomer with a dazzling reputation. Are they two of a kind? She suspected that “were she to fall over in a solid frozen block of ice and expire right there, he would be unmoved except by the novelty of the situation.’’ What moves Early is science; his future seems as bright the stars he charts. At the St. Louis World’s Fair, Margaret realizes that “if it was meant for a man and a woman to share something with each other that they did not share with anyone else, then somehow, for Captain Early and herself, this was it, the strange effervescence of the impending twentieth century.’’

An effervescence that quickly goes flat. Rumors circulate about Andrew’s past. On the train to the California naval base where Andrew will take charge of the observatory, he arranges separate berths and bestows only chaste kisses. Once settled in their house, they test “the fringes of marital relations.’’ Andrew compensates for the passionless marital bed by showering all his affection on birds and stars.

Though Margaret, dazed and confused by marriage, “had no idea who she was anymore,’’ she plays the role of dutiful wife; she cooks; she cleans. Stoically she survives a miscarriage and the death of a second baby. She labors as Andrew’s secretary, typing his books, listening to his cockamamie theories. If she’s low-level Asperger’s, he’s high-maintenance bipolar, heavy on the mania. Using his wife as his sounding board and amanuensis, he cares little for her feelings.

Hampered by such a hopeless, hapless husband, Margaret seeks out her fellow Missourian, Dora, a reporter, world traveler, feminist, who becomes an adventurous foil to Margaret’s drab mouse. Margaret befriends a Japanese family, tastes miso, delights in calligraphy and the Japanese garden. She forms a knitting group of sympathetic women. She learns to drive a car. Compelled to chauffeur Andrew around, she still manages regular trips to San Francisco. She gets a dog, discovers the movies. To the delight of the reader, Smiley even allows her a romance. Margaret’s circle widens.

Andrew’s narrows. His career falls apart; he’s accused of falsifying data. He’s convinced Einstein haunts the streets of their town. Despite his craziness, Margaret stands by her man. What is important is Andrew’s work, Andrew’s book, Andrew’s theory. Nevertheless, when her husband goes too far, she’s forced to admit, “he was a fool.’’

It’s about time. “You go, girl!’’ we cheer when she realizes “marriage was relentless and terrifying.’’ “Yes!’’ we shout when she discovers letters revealing Andrew’s mother had handpicked the local spinster as the “harmless but useful’’ caretaker for her precious son. Sadly, once again, Margaret lets us down. “A wife could know her husband was thoroughly wrong but the last thing on earth she could do was say so,’’ she concludes. There’s no joy in this Mudville.

Though the novel can feel like a slog, persistence brings riches. By the end, the reader has a sense of lives lived, of the slide from one century to the next. However complicated and different this mismatched pair — the husband so loud, the wife so quiet — we appreciate their careful portraits. That we can empathize with the impossible Andrew is a tribute both to the author and our own stick-to-it-iveness. While Margaret stays “balanced on a very narrow perch,’’ she does finally earn our hard-won sympathy and our fondness, if not our love.

Mameve Medwed is the author of five novels, the most recent, “Of Men and Their Mothers.’’


Knopf, 318 pp., $26.95