Hannibal Free Public Library

Private Life 
Jane Smiley

December 2, 2013

2:30 – 4:00 p.m.



  1. How would you describe this novel in one sentence?
  2. Smiley's epigraph for the book is a quote from Rose Wilder Lane . Why do you think she chose this particular line?
  3. What is the purpose of the prologue? How did it color your interpretation of what followed?
  4. Over the course of this novel—which stretches across six decades of American history—how does the role of women change? How might Margaret's life—and marriage—have been different were she born later?
  5. This is a book that begins and ends with war—starting in a Missouri that is just emerging from the destruction of the Civil War, concluding in California on the eve of World War II. Margaret's personal life is also punctuated by historical events, the San Francisco Earthquake among them. How does this history affect the lives of characters? How does Margaret's story offer the reader a different perspective on the larger life of the nation?
  6. On page 64, Smiley writes, "Margaret began to have a fated feeling, as if accumulating experiences were precipitating her toward an already decided future." Do you think her fated feeling proved accurate? Was marrying Andrew a choice she made, was the decision that of both of their mothers, or was it dictated by the time and place?
  7. Lavinia tells Margaret, "A wife only has to do as she's told for the first year" (page 75). When does Margaret finally take this advice? Why? Do you think this is good advice or manipulation?
  8. Compare Lavinia's advice with the counsel in the letters Margaret finds from Mrs. Early to Andrew. Whose is more useful? More insightful? Do you find Mrs. Early's behavior toward Margaret and her mother deceitful?
  9. What does Dora represent to Margaret? If she could trade places with her, do you think Margaret would? How does Dora think of Margaret? Do Margaret and Dora have anything in common? If not, what do you think brings them together?
  10. Margaret and Andrew are both devastated by their son Alexander's death, yet they react in different ways. How does Andrew's perspective on this tragedy—that of a scientist and a man who believes in logical explanations—differ from Margaret's? How does Alexander's death change their marriage? Might things have been different if he had lived? Why or why not?
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