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Private Life

3.18  ·  Rating details ·  3,559 ratings  ·  732 reviews
A riveting new novel from the Pulitzer Prize–winner that traverses the intimate landscape of one woman’s life, from the 1880s to World War II.

Margaret Mayfield is nearly an old maid at twenty-seven in post–Civil War Missouri when she marries Captain Andrew Jackson Jefferson Early. He’s the most famous man their small town has ever produced: a naval officer and a brilliant
ebook, 336 pages
Published May 4th 2010 by Anchor (first published January 1st 2010)
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Average rating 3.18  · 
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 ·  3,559 ratings  ·  732 reviews

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Feb 22, 2011 rated it did not like it  ·  review of another edition
Ok, that’s it. No more Jane Smiley for me. Hubby and I have tried 1000 Acres and wound up giving up on that finding Smiley's focus on the mundane details of EVERYTHING to be incredibly tedious, characters unappealing, and totally in need of a good editor to cut it down by 75%..
Now comes Private Life, which from the publisher’s blurb sounded like an intriguing story. Not. It is a character study straight out of DSM – see Dependent Personality Disorder. And, while this could be fairly interesting
May 24, 2010 rated it did not like it  ·  review of another edition
I am a great fan of Jane Smiley. And because I am I kept waiting patiently for the story to pick up. the story takes place between 1883 and 1942. The main characters Margaret a sweet but not particularly dynamic woman who at 27 marries Dr. Andrew Jefferson Early a Navy Captain and scientist. I found it disturbing witnessing 30 years plus of marriage with Andrew never stopping to be selfish and even worse creating insane scientific hypothesis. The period of time covered was a dramatic exciting ti ...more
Jan 02, 2011 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Sometimes, when I finish a book, I like to read what others have written, just to see if I agree. This time, I couldn't disagree more. Several people commented that this is the story of a loveless, arranged marriage. Andrew proposed to Margaret and she accepted, so it was not arranged. She traveled across country with him, leaving behind family, friends and her the comfort of the known. Although both mother's plotted to get the two of them together, they did not force the marriage. In an arrange ...more
Joy D
Historical fiction about the life of a woman, Margaret Mayfield Early. Born in the 1870’s in Missouri, she is very much a woman of her era. She quiet and submissive, and appears to be on her way to being, at 27, what was then called a spinster. She meets Andrew Early, an intellectual astronomer who espouses theories of the universe, marries, and accompanies him to an island off the coast of California. Her husband’s actions, at first, seem reasonable to her, but she eventually begins to question ...more
Dec 17, 2010 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: novels
As i was reading Jane Smiley's most recent novel, my husband commented that world events did not enter Jane Austen's Emma. What a contrast from Private Life, in which the protagonist Margaret Mayfield Early bears witness to the aftermath of the American Civil War, the San Francisco earthquake, the First World War, anarchy, Pearl Harbor and the national paranoia that came afterwards, as well as the most important scientific advances. Margaret is more forward-looking than her domineering and misgu ...more
Brenda C Kayne
Oct 23, 2010 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: fiction
Only until the last paragraph is read does one come to the realization that this is a cautionary tale on both domestic and worldly levels. In this story, choices are made regarding marriage, social convention, and what to do when one is confronted with a mixture of genius, insanity, and power. The atmosphere is set in the mid-west (oh, how Jane Smiley knows the mid-west)and in San Francisco during the early part of this century. (Yes, it could be a very good movie.)

This book has a graduating in
Apr 30, 2020 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: shelf
Disappointment. The main story failed to engage my interest and contained too much repetition to illustrate a simple point.
May 24, 2010 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
I'm well into it-and liking it very much.

Finished. In the meantime I read the NYT Michiko Kakutani's review, or shall I say trashing, of the book. I totally disagree with her, as I liked this book very much and found it unique and deep in a way that Kakutani's superficial reading seems not to access.

The time/setting is the early part of the 20th century, in Missouri and California. A timid girl is married to a local standout, an educated and promising fellow, who feels he has understood the uni
Aug 21, 2010 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: fiction
This is what might have happened to Dorothea in Middlemarch if she hadn't had the good fortune of Mr Casaubon dying and setting her free. This book is no Middlemarch, but it is an excruciating portrait of a sterile marriage in the first half of the 20th century, between a too-timid woman with no other options, and a brilliant but increasingly deranged astronomer. It's slow at first, but the last third of the book, as Margaret slowly begins to see her husband as others see him, and finally realis ...more
Meegan McCorkle
This was a fascinating, if slower-paced, novel. And ultimately, it was a very sad novel, with Margaret realizing at the end of her life that she should have lived it more consciously, not letting it slide by, with key decisions made for her. Not regret you want to feel: a sense of life unfulfilled.

As a girl, Margaret has such promise: the spark of life that has her running up and down her town's main street, with a mind advanced and shaped by a passion for reading. But then no suitable man appe
Lynne Spreen
This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here.
Erika Nerdypants
This is one of those books that you don't merely read, but rather fall into. Jane Smiley is the queen of details for me, and this is no exception. Very little in this story is told to the reader, everything is shown, in extravagant little details that I concede, some might find excessive, but so appeal to me. The story chronicles the life of Margaret, a quiet, obedient young woman, from 1883 to 1942. Initially not all that interested in marriage, she follows convention when marriage is proposed ...more
Harold Titus
Jan 11, 2015 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
“Private Life” by Pulitzer-Prize winning novelist Jane Smiley is a third-person narrated account of the life -- from the age of five in 1883 to the age of 64 in 1942 -- of an accommodating, submissive woman, Margaret (Mayfield) Early, who, finally, out of necessity must assert herself. I felt that Smiley’s narration, a consequence of Margaret’s compliant nature, lacked excitement until maybe a fourth of the way into the book when she marries her husband, Captain Andrew Early, an egotistical astr ...more
Laurie Gray
Sep 29, 2012 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
“Private Life” by Jane Smiley tracks the life of Margaret Mayfield from her youth in Post-Civil War Missouri through her life as Mrs. Andrew Early in California during WWII. Smiley begins with the Rose Wilder Lane quote “In those days all stories ended with the wedding.” Rather than a fairytale “happily-ever-after,” though, Smiley delves into the life of a “good woman” who submits to convention and allows her marriage to define her. Margaret describes herself as the third sister, even though she ...more
Apr 27, 2010 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Margaret Mayfield was considered to be the least attractive daughter in the family—mostly because of her somewhat unappealing personality—and these very qualities were whispered about by neighbors and relatives. So when a very bright man, Andrew Early—a bit older than Margaret, who at twenty-seven was considered to be an "old maid"—appears to be courting her, everyone is pleased.

Margaret's mother Lavinia and Andrew's mother Anna seem to be negotiating for this union.

Margaret herself is impressed
Elizabeth Sulzby
I do not agree with the publisher's blurb that this is a riveting tale. It is a story that shows how the young woman retains her privacy and doubts about her supposedly so spectacular scholar of a husband. The story is carried in part by the young man's mother and letters that she had written to her son over the decades, urging him to take his great mind and to be humble with it. The wife learns that the accusation of misuse of data against her husband when he was young is not the end of his pre ...more
There are a handful of living women writers whose new works are required reading. For me, Jane Smiley is one of them, all the more so because she lives in Carmel and I like to follow how her world view and attitude continue to evolve. Although many of Jane Smiley's novels are set in contemporary life, she sets this one in the late Victorian period,and finishes in 1943, after Pearl Harbor.She explores the mysteries of married life from the point of view of Margaret,a compliant protected young wom ...more
Nancy Hamilton
I listened to this book on my iPod, and it seems to me that this is a book best enjoyed in listening to it. The gentle, straight-forward narrative mirrors the internal life of Margaret, the protagonist, an ordinary, submissive, rather passive housewife, married to a scientist. The book follows her through her girlhood in 19th century Missouri through her marriage to Andrew Early, the most successful man ever to emerge from their little town, to their lives together in California, up through WWII ...more
Raima Larter
I wanted to like this book--in fact, I bought it in hardcover, since everything else I've read by Jane Smiley has been superb, so why would this be any different? My two-star review is a reflection of the fact that I gave up partway in, unable to force myself to read any further.

The book opens with a riveting sequence that takes place in post-WWII San Francisco. I was immediately pulled in and wanted to know more about what had led to this situation involving Japanese citizens (or, possibly, no
Far from "riveting" (publisher's blurb). The writing is, of course, up to Jane Smiley's usual high standard, and Kate Reading's reading (ha! was there ever a better name for an audiobook narrator?) is excellent, though I didn't really care for protagonist Margaret's voice. But nothing ever really seemed to come to anything. Shows that a realistic reflection of life does not necessarily make a good novel. For much of the novel, I felt as trapped as Margaret.
Jun 14, 2015 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
This is one of those books that defy the back cover description. Sure, it's accurate about the plot which really doesn't sound too interesting. What could be so compelling about one woman's life, the typical nuances of fate that make up one person's existence? And the character herself is not particularly noteworthy, the times she lives in are of interest but not extremely so. And yet this book came to life for me the way only a small percentage do. It was real and solid and full of minor epipha ...more
Jessica Deboer
Oct 18, 2018 rated it did not like it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: 2018
If I didn’t have to read this for book club, I would not have finished it. How is it that some authors create characters you come to love and feel like you have known personally, while other authors’ characters impress nothing upon you whatsoever? This book contains the latter. I just did not care at all.
DeeDee Rice
Oct 23, 2020 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Private Life was an interesting portrayal of American Life in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It follows Margaret through her childhood to adult hood. Sometimes I had a hard time relating to her, because of how she reacted to her husband, but I constantly had to remind myself what life was like for women during that time period. This story also spoke about what aspired people to do what they did, how others reacted to them and how one struggles to live up to what they think they should b ...more
Apr 15, 2020 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Second time reading this book. It was nice
Zilpha Owens
I couldn’t get into the writing style. Maybe another time.
May 21, 2010 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: fiction
Pulitzer Prize winner Jane Smiley's latest offering Private Life details the lumbering but inevitable evolution of Margaret Mayfield. Beginning in 1880, Smiley details the premise of Margaret's life: scarred early by the abrupt deaths of her two brothers and father, Margaret finds herself the old maid (at 27) of a small Missouri town outside of St. Louis. Seemingly content to spend her life reading books and assisting in the lives of her mothers and sisters, Margaret happens upon what appears at ...more
Mar 26, 2016 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
To say that this book is deceptive is putting it mildly. I picked up the audio at the library, knowing nothing about it except that it is by Jane Smiley.
A brief description would say that "Private Life" is a novel about a woman's life from the late 1800's through the early years of World War II. Margaret Mayfield grew up in rural Missouri, one of three surviving daughters of her widowed mother. She is quiet and unremarkable, but observant. At age 27, Margaret marries a self-described genius. Cap
Ann D
Jan 28, 2014 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
This is one of those books that I bought cheap at Borders' going out of business sales. I bought it because of the good reviews and because I know that Smiley is a very talented writer; I avoided reading it because of the blurb on the back from the Atlantic Monthly calling it "heartbreaking, bitter." The Atlantic goes on to call it a "gorgeous story." It is all those things.

The heroine, Margaret, is steered into marriage by her mother. Margaret is 27 and virtually an old maid. Her husband, Andre
Jul 14, 2010 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Moving from the late-nineteenth century through World War II, and crossing North America from Missouri to California, this novel is the story of the unhappy and increasingly distant marriage of Margaret and Andrew Early. Always an unlikely couple, the Earlys' marriage grows more troubled over time. By her late twenties Margaret was in danger of living her life as a perpetual spinster. Andrew, a troubled and headstrong scientist, dismissed in shame from his faculty position in Chicago, charms Mar ...more
Jan 28, 2011 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Jane Smiley will always be one of my favorite modern authors, and I'm always drawn in by her narrative voice. That said, I've been much more impressed by every one of her books, novellas and short stories BEFORE the wondrous Pulitzer Prize winning A Thousand Acres, than any that came afterwards. Sometimes as I read her writing today I get the feeling that her talent and her vision were steadily gearing up to her major work, A Thousand Acres, and that in some ways she lost creative steam afterwar ...more
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Play Book Tag: Private Life by Jane Smiley - 3 stars 1 7 Mar 26, 2019 02:10AM  

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Jane Smiley is a Pulitzer Prize-winning American novelist.

Born in Los Angeles, California, Smiley grew up in Webster Groves, Missouri, a suburb of St. Louis, and graduated from John Burroughs School. She obtained a A.B. at Vassar College, then earned a M.F.A. and Ph.D. from the University of Iowa. While working towards her doctorate, she also spent a year studying in Iceland as a Fulbright Scholar

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