"The Pulitzer Prize–winning author offers a cold-eyed view of the compromises required by marriage while also providing an intimate portrait of life in the Midwest and West during the years 1883-1942. By the time she reaches the age of 27, Margaret Mayfield has known a lot of tragedy in her life… Her strong-minded mother, Lavinia, knows that her daughter’s prospects for marriage are dim and takes every opportunity to encourage Margaret’s friendship with eccentric scientist Andrew Early... As Smiley covers in absorbing detail both private and world events …she keeps at the center of the narrative Margaret’s growing realization that she has married a madman and her subsequent attempts to deal with her marriage…Smiley casts a gimlet eye on the institution of marriage even as she offers a fascinating glimpse of a distant era."
"A subtle and thoughtful portrayal of a woman’s inner strength, [Private Life] may especially appeal to readers who have enjoyed Marilynne Robinson’s recent Gilead and Home… In 1905 Missouri, quiet 27-year-old Margaret Mayfield marries Capt. Andrew Jackson Jefferson Early, a naval officer and an astronomer who is considered a genius and a little odd. By the time they make their way by train to their new life in California, the reader understands that Captain Early is actually somewhat crazy in his obsessions…Their lives together grow more troubled [and] Smiley reminds us how difficult it was for all but the boldest women to extract themselves from suffocating life situations 100 years ago. While dealing with intimate matters, this novel also has an epic sweep, moving from Missouri in the 1880s to the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, up to the Japanese internment camps of World War II, with the scenes from Margaret’s Missouri childhood reminiscent of Willa Cather."
"Smiley roars [in this] scarifying tale of stifling marriage and traumatizing losses. Bookish, shrewdly observant Margaret Mayfield discomfits most men in turn-of-the-20th-century Missouri, but she needs to get married…The best bookish Margaret can do is Andrew Early, whose checkered intellectual career is about to take him to a naval observatory in California. He’s graceless and self-absorbed, but perhaps it’s enough that he and Margaret share a fascination with ‘the strange effervescence of the impending 20th century.’ It isn’t. During the years 1905 to 1942, we see Margaret increasingly infuriated by the subordination of her life to Andrew’s all-consuming quest to find order in [the] universe…Their disparate responses to the death of Andrew’s mother in the 1906 earthquake and of their infant son (the latter among the saddest pages Smiley has ever written) begin Margaret’s alienation…The novel closes with Margaret at last asserting herself, but that hardly makes up for a lifetime of emotions suppressed and chances missed. Rage and bitterness may not be the most comfortable human emotions, but depicting them takes Smiley’s formidable artistry to its highest pitch. Her most ferocious novel since the Pulitzer Prize–winning A Thousand Acres, and every bit as good."