16 June 2010

Review: Private Life by Jane Smiley

I'm pleased to announce that my review of Jane Smiley's Private Life (audiobook edition) has been published at the WETA Book Studio blog.

Margaret Mayfield Early, born about a decade after the Civil War, experiences life in oppositions. As technological advances expand the nation's possibilities, societal expectations shrink Margaret's personal world. In Private Life, Jane Smiley examines how Margaret, a self-assured, adventurous girl brought up on the western edge of civilization in the 1880s, metamorphizes into a timid, obedient wife before coming full circle to find herself again.

By the time her younger sisters marry and have children, Margaret seems to be well on a different path. She is content to spend her time reading and accompanying her mother on social visits around their small Missouri town. When Margaret meets the locally famous Captain Andrew Jackson Jefferson Early of the U.S. Navy, she is both attracted to and put off by the man. Succumbing to her mother's gentle prodding, Margaret does the right thing and is soon married and on the train to California.

On the micro-level, Smiley explores what happens when two people find themselves together, yet each in a life that was not meant for them. Andrew tries to remake himself in his own grandiose self-image, and Margaret tries to be the woman society demands of her. Margaret's awakenings and Andrew's investigations come in stages, with world events marking their progress. The Russian Revolution, the 1918 flu epidemic, Einstein's discoveries, the Japanese invasion of China, Pearl Harbor: Andrew is sure he can uncover the true meaning behind the headlines. Each of his projects, however, has an effect on Margaret, opening her eyes to the secrets of her own circumstances.

On a macro-level, Private Life takes a historic look at marriage and the changing women's roles through the first half of the 1900s by focusing on Margaret and then expanding the picture to include a selection of her family and friends. The prologue and epilogue nicely frame the story, so readers are able to lose themselves in the journey, having an early taste of where it will end.

The audio edition of Private Life was read by the award-winning Kate Reading. Reading's portrayals of the different personalities are spot-on, and her rendition of the Japanese characters is subtle and not at all stereotypical. Most impressive is Reading's ability to convey the contrast between Margaret's dream-like state and Andrew's frenetic pursuit of fame. Reading's skill with the dialogue shines, especially because the novel was printed without quotation marks, making it sometimes difficult to separate narration from speech.

Thanks to The Book Studio, and especially Bethanne Patrick and Swapna Krishna, for the opportunity.

9 comments:

Just Mom 6/16/10, 5:29 PM  

Great review! The realtionships having such a rich historical backdrop is appealing - that's a time period I haven't explored much.

Diane 6/16/10, 6:22 PM  

Great job! (BTW...I just learned that Beth F is not your real name)LOL

Sandy Nawrot 6/16/10, 6:26 PM  

Ha! Pretty soon everyone will know your real name. Just to think, it all started with Ziggy...

Hey way to go on this opportunity. You are famous!

Robin McCormack 6/17/10, 11:44 AM  

Excellent - great review.

Kris 6/17/10, 12:30 PM  

Congratulations!

Michelle 6/17/10, 9:25 PM  

Congratulations!! How very exciting!

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