Smiley's heroine denies emotions
Margaret Mayfield Early is an unusual heroine. So thoroughly an American woman of her time, timid and repressed, she endures a tragic youth to live out a comfortable life of discomfort.
The novel begins with a prologue event in 1942, by which time Margaret's tolerance of life with her husband is on autopilot. She, however, is emerging from decades of inner turbulence.
The story's long middle, which begins in Missouri in 1883, is a mini-epic driven by the small events of a circle of family and friends whose personalities are mannered and distinctively Midwestern.
When she was very young, one brother took her to a hanging, the details of which she goes through life believing she had forgotten. This denial proves to be one of the defining threads of her life.
Margaret's life is filled with dramas -- witnessing the hanging, the deaths of two brothers, her father's suicide, losing friends in the San Francisco earthquake and discovering Japanese friends in an internment camp -- but Margaret moves along an emotional pathway that deflects difficulty, and the tone of the storytelling is as even-keeled and subdued as she is herself.
When she marries Capt. Andrew Jackson Jefferson Early in her late 20s, a low-grade tension seeps into the story and steps up gradually as she endures life with the gradually unbearable presence of Capt. Early.
She meets him in their shared hometown in Missouri when she is a very young woman riding her bicycle. He is considered to be the town's most famous person, having served in the Navy and built a reputation as a scientist of the universe.
Some years later, they marry and the story shifts to California, where he is stationed at an observatory on an island. His station is remote, maybe for a reason, but his hubris and her acceptance of his work for years keep a pretense from crashing.
A young man seeks him out wanting to write a book about him, feeding both the captain's inflated ego and the reader's uncertainty about the accomplishments of this genius. Is the captain's prodigiousness that of a nutcase, and if so, what's the motive of this young man?
Margaret's job is to type the hundreds of pages and endless revisions. Her pain slowly becomes palpable to the reader as she realizes she is stuck inside the captain's strangeness and that she doesn't respect his work. One particularly brilliant passage is an interior monologue in which Margaret's loathing of him comes out in a silent strangled fantasy of unloading on an old friend, Pete. He is a man of warmth and ease with whom she is chastely in love.
Finally, the reader thinks, she is being honest, but will she act on her own behalf?
She walks into a room one day to overhear a friend saying to others, "She's a saint," and realizes they are talking about her. From Margaret's point of view, Smiley writes, "It was particularly painful all of a sudden to know that her friends and relatives valued her life not for anything she had done, but for what she had put up with."
Capt. Early writes letters to The New York Times scolding them for the way they cover the universe. He offers to be an expert source but gets no response. He gets no reviews of his articles and books. He is furious that Einstein gets all the headlines, and he gets none.
From the outset, he seems delusional, acknowledged and self-acknowledged as a genius, but Smiley makes you curious as to whether he might be right about some things. He has wild theories, thinks Einstein is plotting to destroy this country, fingers various associates as spies and disappears to Washington on "business."
His disappearance sets Margaret free. She dreads his homecoming as she waits for it. Single for awhile, she walks their dog and soaks up her surroundings as if she had never fully felt the sun or smelled the air.
The denouement -- and her bravest moment, with her knitting group as witnesses -- is the sudden gasp of realization, in her 70s, that she was in the audience of her life instead of in the playing of it.
First Published June 6, 2010 12:00 am