Interview: "Jane Smiley on Marriage, Politics, and Huffington Post"
Eleanor Barkhorn speaks with the Pulitzer Prize–winning author about her new novel and the many questions it raises.
This heartbreaking, bitter, and gorgeous story of a woman’s life stunted by marriage is Smiley’s best novel yet. Coming of age on her grandfather’s prosperous Missouri farm at a time when Union and Confederate veterans still march in the Fourth of July parade, bookish, reserved Margaret does not secure a husband until well into her 20s, when she marries an eccentric genius astronomer 10 years her senior and moves with him to a naval base outside San Francisco. Andrew turns out to be Casaubon-like in his egotism and grandiosity—his subject is, after all, the universe—as well as in his professional frustration, but Margaret is no Dorothea. Although her mother assures her that “a wife only has to do as she’s told for the first year,” Andrew exerts a force on her as pervasive as gravity, and she cannot escape his orbit. Nothing is confined about this ambitious novel itself, however. Smiley makes dazzling and meticulous use of her historical scope; the Louisiana Purchase Exposition, the San Francisco earthquake, the World Wars, the influenza epidemic, the Japanese internment, the harnessing of electricity, the evolution of the automobile and the movies, Hearst and Einstein—all are gracefully incorporated into her plot and themes. Even more admirable is her thoroughly convincing rendition of intimate details from the perspective of another era—the feeling of riding a bicycle when it was a new sensation, the subtle yet powerful machinations of a mother and future mother-in-law in arranging a marriage, the commonplace expectation of children’s deaths.
D. J. Taylor
A clever, stylish entertainment with dark undercurrents, set in the first third of the 20th century, Ask Alice traces the rise of an orphaned Kansas girl from pretty young thing on the prairie to bright young thing in 1920s London to society hostess in the ’30s. Taylor—a British novelist, social chronicler, and biographer of Thackeray and Orwell—alternates point of view between the woman and a boy of uncertain parentage. The book has all the makings of Victorian high drama—a slew of colorful characters, vivid and varied scenes, precipitous changes in fortune, and inescapable revelations of long-buried secrets.
Lyndon B. Johnson
LBJ has been well served by his exhaustive biographers. He is the subject of two excellent, fair-minded works—a single-volume doorstop, by Randall B. Woods, and a double-volume life, by Robert Dallek—and of the best biography of a 20th-century president: Robert Caro’s multivolume, seemingly never-ending work in progress, The Years of Lyndon Johnson. Now Peters has provided a trim, astute portrait, part of a series of brief presidential biographies conceived by Arthur Schlesinger Jr. A legendary Washington journalist, Peters shrewdly assesses Johnson’s legislative tactics and political manipulations, his idealism and staggering energies, his crudeness and cruelties. As the passions surrounding Vietnam recede, Johnson is increasingly celebrated for his considerable domestic achievements, particularly in civil rights. His role in presiding over America’s decades-long commitment to averting South Vietnam’s fall to Communism is assuming its proper place in assessments of his political career, and this book reflects that trend. As Peters perceptively notes:
During all but the final year of his presidency, his Vietnam policy enjoyed the support of a majority of Democrats and Republicans in Congress … the country as a whole was complicit in the decisions … as were not just the majority but all but one (George Ball) of the national security advisers Johnson had inherited from John Kennedy.
What Becomes: Stories
A. L. Kennedy