This is one of those wonderful, gentle, flowing novels that sweeps you along through the lives of its characters. I didn’t give it five stars for stunning prose or great characterization (the usual reasons a novel gets five stars from me), but rather for the many inter-twined themes and the ways in which they spoke to me.
Do not mistake me, characters are very important to this novel, and there are a two pivotal ones, surrounded by a rather large supporting cast. Primarily, the novel is the story of Margaret Mayfield, at twenty-seven a woman on the verge of spinsterhood in late nineteenth century middle America. Margaret catches the eye of local eccentric academic, Andrew Jackson Jefferson Early, marries him, and moves with him to his Naval posting in California.
As the nineteenth century becomes the twentieth, we see the novel’s themes evolve along with the marriage (the novel’s central theme). Married to a man who views himself as an important physicist and astronomer and coming from a small town that reveres him as such, Margaret comes to realize certain things over the years as secrets are revealed-but are things really as they seem? This is a brilliant skirt of the line women at this time in history had to walk within a marriage, a line of loyalty, saccharine smiles, knitting circles, and self-denial. Other characters bring the other major themes of feminism (one progressive minded individual in particular) and racism (Japanese/American relations) into the novel and into the marriage of Margaret and Andrew. It was the way in which these latter two themes were threaded through the fabric of the Early’s relationship which I found so masterful, and these elements which took this novel out of the level of another hum-drum look at a pre-feminist movement marriage, which, let’s face it, are rather boring and frankly quite irritating at times for we modern girls to read about. Yet, at the same time Jane Smiley managed to keep the marriage realistic for the time frame in which she was writing, because she doesn’t make Margaret the feminist-a very good move I thought.
This is, as stated, a gentle, flowing novel about a marriage, but that said, there are many historical events popping up throughout the book. For instance, the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, the First World War, the Second World War, and in particular the internment of Japanese Americans at Tanforan Racetrack in nearby San Bruno. Ms. Smiley does an excellent job, aided in part by Andrew’s Naval job and in part by a friendship between Margaret and a Japanese family, due to Margaret’s interest in Japanese art, of inserting a lot of historical flavor and facts into the novel without it feeling overdone.
This is another book that I listened to on audio, and I would definitely recommend Kate Reading’s lovely narration. Her smooth inflection was just perfect for the tone of the novel.
If you are looking for a character based novel focusing on a turn of the century marriage and interwoven with some relevant themes and events from that time in history this is an excellent choice that I highly recommend.