Sunday, 11 September 2011

PRIVATE LIFE by Jane Smiley

This is a novel about a suffocatingly boring marriage. The pitfalls of writing a novel about many repetitive years of boring routine are obvious, and I'm afraid this book falls into every one.

PRIVATE LIFE begins with a visit by an older couple to a Japanese interment camp in the US in 1942. I mean, honestly, I almost gave up on the book right then and there. There was a definite sense that the author was bravely revealing the scandal of Japanese internment during the Second World War. Which is odd, as it has been covered in literature many times before, almost always with the same air of great revelation, and even more irritatingly, of self-congratulatory moral courage. This is bizarre, as hands up who feels that it was okay to intern the Japanese? Anyone? Anyone? Didn't think so.

After the cheesetastic visit to the Japanese camp, we move back in time to see the old woman, Margaret, as a young woman in 1885. She is in danger of becoming an old maid, and is saved in the end by marriage to an eccentric astronomer. He is always rigidly polite to her, but it becomes clear over time that he is rather deluded in his scientific views, and immensely egotistical, expecting her whole life to be about serving his latest craze. I kept reading in the hopes that at some point a narrative arc would appear, in which Margaret gains courage and stands up to her husband. No such luck I am afraid. At one point, Margaret, speaking to her knitting club, saying
“There are so many things I should have dared before this.” And her tone was so bitter that the other ladies fell silent.
Of course one wishes that this was about half way through the book, at which point she becomes a go-go dancer, and the the novel really kicks off. But no. In fact, this hopeless declaration is in fact the end of this boring and depressing novel. At one point Margaret has a brief affair, and astonishingly, even this illicit event manages to be both boring and depressing.

This isn't relevant, but I just have to mention that as I write this blog post the movie TERMINATOR SALVATION is playing in the background, and I feel impelled to ask the blogosphere: what is Christian Bale doing? He appears to believe that seriously great acting is underway. I find it weirdly embarrassing to watch, as if you came across someone posing in their bathroom mirror.


  1. Sorry to know that you didn't like this book much. I have wanted to read Jane Smiley's book on Greenland ('The Greenlanders') and her award-winning 'A Thousand Acres' for a while now. It looks like this novel, 'Private Life', may not be in the same league as the others.

  2. Seriously, I love the way you write your reviews. The first paragraph of this had me laughing, as always. Thanks again for saving me the trouble of reading a not quite so interesting book!

  3. Is it like the over-beaten dead horse? My only problem with boring books is that, once I start reading a book I cannot put it down. I feel that if I persevere I would get it. And so would read it to the end. Glad that you persevered to tell us.

  4. Oh, Nana, I give up on books all the time. You are very brave. I just feel my life slipping by . .

    Thanks Amy, for the complimet - much appreciated!

    Vishy, I have heard great things of Jane Smiley - she even won the Pulitzer . . .so maybe I am just missing something!