Smiley roars back from the disappointing Ten Days in the Hills (2007) with a 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. Her father committed suicide when she was eight, shortly after one of her brothers was killed in a freak accident and the other died from measles. Widowed Lavinia Mayfield makes it clear to her three daughters that decent marriages are their only hope for economic security, and 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 twentieth 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 a universe that she knows all too well “makes no sense.” Their disparate responses to the death of Andrew’s mother in the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and of their infant son in 1909 (the latter among the saddest pages Smiley has ever written) begin Margaret’s alienation. It’s compounded over decades by seeing in her sister-in-law Dora’s journalism career an example of the independent, fulfilled existence Margaret might have achieved if she’d had the courage—and, not at all incidentally, the money. A shady Russian refugee gives Margaret a few moments of happiness, but nothing to make up for Andrew’s final betrayal during World War II—denouncing a Japanese-American family she’s fond of as spies. 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 (1991) and every bit as good.