By Marie Arana
Tuesday, May 11, 2010; C01
By Jane Smiley
Knopf. 318 pp. $26.95
A little more than midway through Jane Smiley's extraordinarily powerful new novel, "Private Life," the childless wife of a prominent astronomer becomes fascinated with a family of coots, ducklike birds that live on the pond near her house on Mare Island, up San Francisco Bay. So taken is she with that happy brood that she insists that Mr. Kimura, a Japanese friend, paint it for her. He does so, quickly and delicately, in a scroll that delights her with its urgency. Eventually, however, to her dismay, as she continues to visit the pond, the fattened chicks begin to disappear, one by one, until they are all gone. When she goes home, heartsick, and studies Mr. Kimura's painting, she sees what he saw all along: the green gold water, the golden hill above it, and then a stray chick, "larking about, swimming fast enough to make ripples." Perched on a branch above is the outline of a menacing crow.
In such ways does Margaret Early's life unfold. She doesn't quite see the perils until they have overtaken her. She is not the plucky romantic heroine of Jane Austen or Charlotte Brontë or Louisa May Alcott -- a protagonist who makes her way boldly across the page -- but a woman to whom things happen.
Born in St. Louis a decade after the Civil War, Margaret will find her life touched by the major events of American history: a brutal world war, the San Francisco earthquake, a ravening influenza epidemic, the stock market crash, Pearl Harbor, the incarceration of Japanese Americans -- an abyss into which Mr. Kimura himself disappears -- and yet, somehow, the world will plunge ahead, forcing her to move with it.
Even as a child, Margaret is no stranger to harrowing chance. Having witnessed a public hanging at the age of 5 without really registering it, she is accused of lacking a fine sensibility -- a compassionate, female sensibility. More happens to blunt a girl's soul: She loses a brother to disease, another to random accident, her father to his own gun. Among her surviving sisters, she is the plain one, likely to glare at a man when spoken to. Nearing 30, she is headed toward life as an old maid.
Grace itself descends when her mother -- an eminently practical woman -- manages to marry her off in a promising match to a famous scientist. Capt. Andrew Early is 11 years older than Margaret, fluent in languages, a world traveler, a graduate of Columbia University, a former astronomer at the University of Chicago and an exceedingly strange man. He is known in academic circles as an "arrogant scoundrel. . . . A monster of self-seeking impudence." Never mind, her mother assures her, "you've had a piece of luck, marrying at twenty-seven," and, anyway, "a wife only has to do as she's told for the first year."
And so, unlike the heroines of Austen and Brontë and Alcott, whose stories culminate with a happy wedding, Margaret's begins at the altar. She must survive this marriage, withstand the ramifications of "love, honor and obey," and see what the crows of fate will allow.
More than a year passes, and she is still doing as she's told. She endures a miscarriage and then the death of a sick child, and all the while Capt. Early is ever the rationalist, unresponsive to her misfortunes, sucking the very air from her life as he expects her to surrender to his. In the shadow of his naval observatory, she is subjected to the vicissitudes of his career, made to labor for him as a cook, driver, consort, typist -- too timid to confide her growing doubts about his bona fides to any relatives or friends. And yet, as in her experience with Mr. Kimura's painting, Margaret knows there must be more to her husband than what she sees.
Her natural curiosity gets the better of her, and before long she is digging through letters from his mother, reading this about herself: "No, the girl is not educated nor evidently intelligent, quiet without being mysterious . . . but what do you want in a wife at your age?" Courage follows fecklessness, and, as she reads on, cooks on, drives on, types on, a trembling rage overtakes her, and she is forced to face the truth about the man. Which leads her, ineluctably, to the long-neglected truth about herself.
In the course of this brilliantly imagined, carefully chiseled story, Smiley introduces a rich cast of characters, a virtual rush of Californian diversity. Among Margaret's cohort is a Japanese midwife who can virtually smell Margaret's marital misalliance; an irresistible Cossack who says things like "Put your clothes on, darling, we're going for a ride"; a sister-in-law journalist who is married to her work and counts as friends Ezra Pound and Henri Bergson. A gripping half-century of history strides through these pages, too. Lenin makes an appearance, as do Einstein, Thomas Edison and Nikola Tesla. And then there is early 20th-century science in all its startling crudeness, a coming-of-age story of its own.
Smiley's virtuosity should be no surprise to us. She has proven herself in a dozen wildly different books, among them her Pulitzer Prize-winning "A Thousand Acres," "Horse Heaven," the satire "Moo" and, more recently, a novel for children. But "Private Life" is a quantum leap for this author, a book that -- despite its slow start and initial glare -- burrows deep into the psyche and stays. It kept me up all night, long after I'd finished it, remembering the lives of my mother and grandmothers, recalling every novel about women I had ever read, from "Anna Karenina" to "My Antonia."
In a fair world, it will get all the readers it deserves. It's not often that a work as exceptional as this comes along in contemporary American letters.
Arana is a former editor of Book World and a John W. Kluge Distinguished Scholar at the Library of Congress.