It has been said that Jane Smiley can write about anything and make it fascinating and universal. Private Life bears that out, taking us deep into the life of one woman, Margaret Mayfield, married to cosmologist Andrew Jackson Jefferson Early. The story moves from the end of the US Civil War in 1883 with Margaret as a girl, through to 1942, just past Pearl Harbour and the US's entry into World War Two. As always with Smiley, the work is meticulously researched and richly detailed with much of the sensual aspects of life during that time presented, from the fabrics Margaret's mother sews into dresses, to the details of its setting between Missouri and a San Francisco naval base.
This is a very female, domestic sort of history, allowing the grand events of World War II, the great San Francisco earthquake, and even the scientific controversies as Einsteinian physics begins to challenge Newtonian physics sit as a minor backdrop against the real plot points such as the deaths of Margaret's brothers and father, the hanging she witnesses but can't remember, or the brief but intensely powerful moments when Margaret holds her dying baby:
"As she looked at this face, she grew more and more interested in it, more and more curious about it, more and more drawn to it. She felt it change before her eyes from a strange face to a known face, and more than that, a face she could not stop conning. She stroked his forehead and the crown of his head as gently as she could and felt that new sensation against the skin of her hand, the smooth warmth — not of a baby, but of her baby." (185)
Although Margaret is content for a while to take care of Andrew, pandering to his quirks and delusions of grandeur, his true limitations become clear to her when he feels disappointment that their son isn't the perfect genius he'd plotted would come from the genetic mix of his genius and her "ordinariness." What Margaret realises in that shockflash of pain and longing that Alexander brings her — a tragic gift of insight — is that she isn't ordinary at all. Margaret lives a life of inner reflection and observation — a quiet unfulfilled life full of sexual and economic repression. She is moved by the delicate artwork of her Japanese friends the Kimuras, and drawn to the wild, wordliness of her sister-in-law Dora and Pete Krizenko/Moran, a dashing but suspect Russian who has won and lost many fortunes. But she herself remains stable and safe, reflecting the perceptions she has of the truth of character that sits below the flashy surface: