Smiley, Jane. Private Life

Faber, $32.99

Margaret loses both her brothers when she is still a girl: one to a freak accident, the other to measles. Soon afterwards, her father shoots himself, a doctor desperate he could not save his son.

No matter how much the reader wills it, Margaret’s life doesn’t get much happier, either.

Margaret’s mother is relieved when Margaret marries in her late 20s, saving her from spinsterhood but delivering her into a chilly marriage to a brilliant, but possibly delusional, astronomer. Tragically, her only child lives for less than three weeks. Over the course of her marriage, she becomes disillusioned with her husband and his theories.

Private Life is a portrait of this quiet woman as a miserable wife.

Spanning an epic timeframe from the late 19th century through to WWII, the novel’s historical background is richly painted. It’s a sturdy chronological structure, which will appeal to those who enjoy reading their history alongside their fiction.

In fact, at times it’s the historical anecdote itself – such as the turn-of-the-century San Franciscan earthquake or the Spanish flu epidemic – that ambushes the retiring heroine and steals the reader’s attention. Similarly, the most thoughtfully-drawn characters sit on the sidelines: a globetrotting, early feminist sister-in-law, a Russian maybe-conman, a Japanese-American family, and the strange husband himself. In fact, these periphery-dwellers are often so much more interesting that when they leave the page, the reader sighs at being left alone with melancholic Margaret.


A novel’s last sentence is sometimes its most telling. Private Life ends, after Margaret admits to herself that there were many things she should have dared earlier in her life, with the line: “And her tone was so bitter that the other ladies fell silent.”

From a 21st-century perch, it is difficult to empathise with the plight of a woman enduring such domestic unhappiness without walking out the door.