Private Life

Written by Jane Smiley
Review by Cecelia Holland

Early on, the heroine of this wonderfully deceptive novel, Margaret, rides a bike along a country road: “covering distance in this solitary manner was marvelously intoxicating…she gripped the handlebars and felt the cold wind lift her hair and, it seemed, her cheeks and eyebrows. The brim of her hat folded back, and the hat itself threatened to fly off her head, but though she gave this a passing thought, she didn’t, could not, stop.” But she does stop, unfortunately, almost at the feet of a man who “looked as if leaning in any direction were impossible for him.”

Margaret marries this man, and her free wild rides are over. Marriage, in the late 19th century the necessary condition of a respectable woman, has sacrificed her to her crackpot husband and his monomania – that rigid inability to change forecast in her first glimpse of him. The unfolding of this story is heartbreaking and ultimately tragic, and Smiley’s evoking of emotional intensity from the most ordinary events raises her heroine to the status of an Everywoman, crippled by social conventions and shackled to a man who is not worthy of her. This is a hard, angry book, served up in a bland disguise, beautiful and scary and true.