Tuesday, August 18, 2020

Jane Smiley - Private Life

Margaret Mayfield is nearly an old maid at twenty-seven when she marries Captain Andrew Jackson Jefferson Early. He's the most famous man their Missouri town has ever produced: a naval officer and an astronomer-a genius who, according to the local paper, has changed the universe. Margaret's mother calls the match "a piece of luck."
Yet Andrew confounds Margaret's expectations from the moment their train leaves for his naval base in San Francisco, and soon she realizes that his devotion to science leaves little room for anything, or anyone, else. She stands by him through tragedies both personal and those they share with the nation. But as World War II approaches, Andrew's obsessions take a darker turn, forcing Margaret to reconsider the life she'd so carefully constructed.

Comment: I brought this book by impulse from the library the last time I went there. I had never heard of this author and even thought that it might be a lighter type of book. Still, the story was interesting enough to make me want to keep reading but I have to confess I don't think I will look for other books by her on purpose, not even the one she won a Pulitzer for.

In this book, the main character is Margaret Mayfield, a 27 year old woman who, at the beginning of the 20th century is born in a large family but that sadly sees three deaths while she is still a child, those of her father and two brothers.
As she grows up, Margaret develops a quieter personality, unlike her sisters who seem prettier and vibrant. Still, as a young woman, Margaret still manages to marry an important man, slightly older than herself and their marriage seems to start really well. However, as time passes by she comes to realize her husband is quite unique but not in the way he seemed to be which means her life becomes rather dull. The problems begin when Margaret realizes her husband's work is making him make choices that will impact more than just his status as a brilliant man...

I'll start right away by saying my biggest issue with this book was the author's style. Her prose is very distracting, for she doesn't focuses on what seems to matter the most in the majority of times. It seems things can very easily move into territory of unrelated stuff that doesn't have a link with what we were reading about before until a certain point. So, not only does it mean my attention was easily distracted but when things get back to what was happening, I wasn't certain what the point was anymore.

I also found it that the message intended wasn't that obvious. Ok, one could expect the author wanted to convey subtlety, some literary mysticism or whatever one would want to call on a novel that is meant for a more erudite target-audience but when I finally reached the end of the book, it just felt like the whole point passed me by. I guess I can say I'm not as erudite as I should/could but apart from some more specific situations, the overall goal wasn't that well achieved, for me.

Margaret and her husband are the main characters and they are described as opposites: she is quiet, has a quick but steady outlook on life and doesn't seem to mind to be in the shadow of her husband, and live a more sedate life. He, on the other hand, is vibrant and almost excessive, is a genius of astronomy and has ideas others don't always accept, to the point of not caring how his behavior might be see by others.
Of course this opposition is purposely given to us for the marriage dichotomy to work even better but it does get on one's nerves how easily some issues could be solved by talking, by them being better listeners... well, I guess the setting helps, for the relationships were quite different in the 1920s and 1930s comparing to now. 

There are some moments of brilliant prose, though. There were some passages that really make it worth reading this novel and I can glimpse why many have considered this author worthy of such praise as even to win a Pulitzer. Some things really made me think and wonder about their meaning.
However, the little great passages don't make a whole book and most of it just didn't quite impress me.
I do feel bad by saying it, but sometimes it was boring to keep going and when the book finally ended it was a supreme frustration because Margaret realized something but it was too little too late and if the story had been instead about the same thing, but more on the afterwards of Margaret's epiphany, I bet it would have felt a lot more rewarding.
Grade: 6/10

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