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Private Life    by Jane Smiley order for
Private Life
by Jane Smiley
Order:  USA  Can
Anchor, 2011 (2010)
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* *   Reviewed by Rheta Van Winkle

Margaret Mayfield was perfectly happy to remain unmarried and live with her mother as her more attractive sisters married and started families. She loved to read, and spent many pleasant hours with books, when she could escape from the rigors of housework, gardening, and cooking - which she and her mother had to do at the end of the 19th century after her father died. She never had too many friends until she met Dora Bell, whose brother had married one of Margaret's sisters. Their friendship became important to Margaret over the coming years. Dora was 'a squat, plain girl with thin hair and nothing more to offer,' at least as far as her marriage prospects. She was fearless, and because of her Margaret learned to ride a bicycle and take chances that she would never have tried on her own. While Margaret later led a fairly ordinary life as a married woman, Dora became a newspaper correspondent and traveled all over the United States and Europe.

One day Margaret was out riding Dora's bicycle through the countryside and happened to meet Captain Early after she fell. He walked with her into the next town. She thought he was strange, but knew his reputation as a brilliant scientist. When her mother and his mother became friends, the two unmarried young people were introduced more formally. Both mothers encouraged the match, so Margaret, who was considered an old mail at 27, finally married. The first part of the book tells about Margaret's life as a girl and young woman living in a small community in Missouri, where her family and their friends were her closest connections. After her marriage, she moved to Mare Island, the naval shipyard for the West Coast, with her new husband, and had to learn how to make friends as well as how to be a married woman.

Andrew Early is an astronomer and spends many hours at the naval observatory, so Margaret has to make friends to ease her loneliness. She finds friendly neighbors on the naval base, and gradually adapts to her new life. The book spans so many years that we witness not only Margaret's life, but also many world-shaking events such as the San Francisco earthquake of 1906, World War I, and the Spanish flu. Margaret discovers things about Andrew over the years and grows into a more independent woman, who is no longer content to just let events overtake her. Her marriage as well as her peace of mind are challenged, but she survives.

Margaret is an interesting character who lived through a time period that was filled with change. We watch her as she struggles to understand what her life is all about while she endures the worst sort of traumas. I became engrossed with her life and the descriptions of what it was like to live during the first half of the twentieth century. We can see in Margaret and her friend Dora the changes that occurred to all women in the United States, as they began to emerge from their dependence on husbands and fathers and come into their own, more independent lives. This is the best sort of historical novel, one in which the characters come to life and show us with their lives what their time was like.

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