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Awkward moments

Sue Miller's latest book is painfully close to the heart
By DEIRDRE FULTON  |  January 16, 2008
Sue Miller

Sue Miller’s stories can be uncomfortable to read — and that’s a compliment. Take the birthing scene in The Senator’s Wife, the best-selling author’s latest foray into the sometimes blissful, often messy, world of domesticity.

Meri is a 37-year-old first-time mother who has trouble identifying with her pregnant self, and then, with her baby. Her ambivalence takes physical form during labor:

“After that the intervals between contractions grew gradually longer again, but the overwhelming force of them didn’t. Meri waited, dreading each one, grunting much of the time between them now. Each time she was seized, her knees bent, on their own it seemed. She squatted, holding whatever was closest — Nathan, the bed, the La-Z-Boy recliner. She felt as though her spine would crack, her body rip open. She couldn’t believe there could be such pain without permanent damage, without death.”

What could in other hands be chick-lit or romance-novel fodder is sharper here. The Senator’s Wife tells the interwoven stories of Delia, an elderly woman who spends a lifetime grappling with the love of her unfaithful senator husband, and her new next-door neighbor Meri, a newlywed with a tenuous relationship to both her body and her husband. As she has in her previous books, Miller describes sex, motherhood, marriage, and friendship with unflinching candor.

The Senator’s Wife by Sue Miller | 306 pages | Alfred A Knopf | $24.95 | Miller reads from the book at 12:30 pm January 17 | Portland Public Library, 5 Monument Sq | Free
While none of her methods is unique, Miller deftly employs flashbacks and epistolary exposition to take the reader through roughly three decades of these women’s lives; despite the chronological breadth, the story never feels sprawling. Rather, as with 19th century tragedies of manners, Delia and Meri’s everyday lives become ripe with significance — not symbolic, but concrete. Miller recognizes that it is in the quotidian (domestic or professional) that many women place emotional emphasis. Larger, “life-changing” events can sometimes serve merely as bookends.

The women and their husbands all have their flaws. “Some people see Delia as a sap,” Miller says on the phone from the West Coast, where she is starting her book tour. It’s true that the sophisticated title character takes her philandering husband back time and again, but “I’m not sure that’s a great failure on her part,” Miller says. In fact, Delia is remarkably self-aware, and any forgiveness happens on her own — if indistinct — terms.

“She imagined herself campaigning with Tom, standing by his side, seeming to be the loving wife,” we learn through a Delia flashback to 1972, when she first decides not to give him up entirely. “And being, yes, the loving wife. For didn’t she love him? Wasn’t she still his wife? And yet not allowing herself lovingness, or wifeliness. Was there a verb form that could express this experience?”

Are there words at all to express the ambiguities of romance, or of why some betrayals are absolved while other transgressions remain unforgiven? Miller finds them here, and succeeds not because she offers fixed answers, but because she acknowledges that each experience, each relationship, conforms to — and bends — its own set of rules.

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Deirdre Fulton:

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