In 1993, the word on Carol Shields' Pulitzer Prize-winning novel "The Stone Diaries" was that nothing really happened in the book -- nothing but those events that constitute an "ordinary" life: comings and goings, loves and losses, births and deaths. So it is with Jane Smiley's new novel, "Private Life."
Though touched (and occasionally knocked off course) by big events -- the St. Louis World's Fair, the San Francisco earthquake, World Wars I and II -- Smiley's story is primarily one of interior life. Its protagonist, Margaret, manages to be both exquisitely observant and dreamily self-contained. We meet her as a young girl on a farm in post-Civil War Missouri and follow her through her minimal education, marriage to an intense and ultimately delusional astronomer who's also a naval captain, friendship with a free-spirited journalist à la Louise Brooks, and association with a Russian expatriate (and perhaps con artist) and a Japanese family whose removal to an internment camp begins and ends the story (the book's one small nod to conventional structure).
And so, a great deal does go on, distantly felt by Margaret, while her real interest, like ours, lies in the inner workings of her private life, which, for all its ostensible ordinariness, is rendered extraordinary by Smiley's subtle art. Along with the perfectly calibrated impressions and perceptions that so profoundly involve us in Margaret's character and all that happens to her, Smiley gives us a convincing sense of life in Margaret's time and place; every detail -- the clothes and habits, news and rumors, passing fads and personalities -- appears as casually as a natural occurrence.
Meanwhile, we see what Margaret sees and, with her, begin to see what we might have missed, or seen differently. Most saliently, our understanding of her husband's scientific obsessions (Einstein, for instance, is out to get him) keeps pace with Margaret's dawning awareness -- going from curiosity, admiration, and amusement to a sort of horror -- just as this growing knowledge forms the first real bridge between the workings of her inner life and the workings of the greater world.
Thus, like "The Stone Diaries" (and Evan Connell's "Mrs. Bridge" and Kate Chopin's story "The Awakening," which it also resembles in many ways), "Private Life" is a story of emerging consciousness -- a story of coming of age late in life. Like these others, Smiley's book might also be seen as a feminist work -- but only insofar as feminism is understood as concerned with the basic humanity of women.
Ellen Akins is the author of "Little Woman."