Private Life, the latest novel from Pulitzer Prize-winning author Jane Smiley, follows the marriage of Margaret and Andrew Early, beginning with their wedding in the late 19th century and ending in the 1940s as the nation fights World War II. But it's about a lot more than that, as Smiley explains in this interview.
The epigraph of Private Life reads, "In those days all stories ended with the wedding." How was your book an attempt to react against "the marriage plot" that has been such a central part of women's literature?
In our day all books don't end with a wedding, but my character was a woman of her time, and as I imagined her, she's just kind of a quiet girl who reads a lot of books, and so in a lot of ways she's totally unprepared for marriage. Her father dies and her two brothers die when she's fairly young, so she's never even witnessed a happy family or been part of a happy family, so she's extra unprepared for that reason.
She mostly remembers her mother after the death of her father, so she remembers her mother as a single woman working hard to make sure that the daughters are taken care of. And so when she ends up married, in her state of ignorance, she really doesn't know how to deal with it. She has no recourse. Her friends gossip about being married and they chat about it in their groups, in their sewing groups and knitting groups and stuff like that, and they sometimes tell horrifying stories for example about women they know who've had terrible problems giving birth and stuff like that but they don't have any ongoing kind of theory or analysis of marriage. It's just like, "Well, stick with it because you're stuck with it."