Jane Smiley

A little more than midway through Jane Smiley’s extraordinarily powerful new novel, “Private Life,” the childless wife of a prominent astronomer becomes fascinated with a family of coots, ducklike birds that live on the pond near her house on Mare Island, up San Francisco Bay. So taken is she with that happy brood that she insists that Mr. Kimura, a Japanese friend, paint it for her. He does so, quickly and delicately, in a scroll that delights her with its urgency. Eventually, however, to her dismay, as she continues to visit the pond, the fattened chicks begin to disappear, one by one, until they are all gone. When she goes home, heartsick, and studies Mr. Kimura’s painting, she sees what he saw all along: the green gold water, the golden hill above it, and then a stray chick, “larking about, swimming fast enough to make ripples.” Perched on a branch above is the outline of a menacing crow.

In such ways does Margaret Early’s life unfold. She doesn’t quite see the perils until they have overtaken her. She is not the plucky romantic heroine of Jane Austen or Charlotte Brontë or Louisa May Alcott — a protagonist who makes her way boldly across the page — but a woman to whom things happen.

Knopf. 318 pp. $26.95

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By Marie Arana

Tuesday, May 11, 2010