Sue Miller

(Jump over to read a review of The Lake Shore Limited)

"The Senator's Wife"

(Reviewed by Kirstin Merrihew FEB 22, 2008)

"Delia looked at the younger woman. Her eyes were steady, looking back. This moment had happened before, a moment when Meri seemed to be probing, trying to get Delia to be more open, more explicit about Tom or the history of her marriage. Delia wasn't sure what that impulse was, what it was that Meri wanted to know, exactly, but she didn't welcome it."

The Senator's Wife by Sue Miller

Aesop's Fables always sum up with a tidy little moral. "The Wolf and the Crane" teaches "In serving the wicked, expect no reward, and be thankful if you escape injury for your pains." "The Ass, the Cock, and the Lion" warns, "False confidence often leads into danger." And "The Lion, the Mouse, and the Fox" insists, "Little liberties are great offenses." Ironically, although these and others of Aesop's aphorisms would have profited the two couples in The Senator's Wife, Sue Miller's contemporary fable about marriage doesn't tie itself into a neat bow in the morals department. 

Basically, you see, the plot explores the inner and outer lives of Meri Fowler, a mid-thirties newlywed, and former U.S. Senator Tom Naughton's wife, Delia. The novel alternates between their perspectives, first tagging along with Meri and husband Nathan as they house hunt in the year 1993. They end up moving into one of two attached brick town houses. At first it is Nathan, a historian, who is lured by the idea of famous liberal Senator Naughton residing next door. But when it becomes plain the retired senator seldom shows his face there and Delia alone is their neighbor, it is Meri who covets a relationship with the self-possessed, stylish older woman.

Meri's unresolved mother issues play a part in this desire to siphon and hoard affection from Delia; her own mother mistreated or ignored her brood and then killed herself, leaving a note telling them, insincerely, not to blame themselves. Meri longs to bond with a mother substitute, and this leads to her violation of Delia's privacy. Delia isn't as forthcoming about her life as Meri would like, so the younger woman snoops in nooks and crannies in the Naughton residence while Delia's in Paris. Reading old personal letters between Tom and Delia, Meri learns details of Tom's infidelities and the hidden half-marriage he and Delia have maintained for the last fifteen years. Meri, feeling some stabs of conscience at her breach of decency, keeps this pilfered information to herself until Tom Naughton makes a visit and, in the course of get-to-know-you chat, tells her what his estranged wife will not.

Not long after moving in, Meri learns she is pregnant. She fears her maternal abilities will be as stunted as her own mother's. She suffers through a painful delivery, and after little Asa is born, can't seem to shake her postpartum fog of alienation, keeping her from bonding with the baby. Delia, a mother for over fifty years, then does take a motherly interest in Meri, encouraging her that first-time motherhood requires some adjustment. Let things take their course, Delia counsels Meri.  

But Delia's own life -- independent and quite isolated for so long -- also suddenly experiences a major adjustment. During one of her periodic two-month stays in her Paris apartment, she is notified that Tom has had a stroke. She flies back immediately to be with him. The stroke has partially paralyzed him and played havoc with his ability to speak. Delia and Tom's daughter, Nancy, who harbors more ill feeling against Tom for his philandering than her mother does, pressures Delia to park and leave him in a rehab/convalescent facility. Delia decides she will resist her daughter's "advice." Despite his compulsive straying, she has always loved him, and now she can take him home, care for him, and finally not have to share him with other women. She convinces herself she isn't trying to control him, but is simply building on the joys of having a husband in the house again. 

But Delia's late-life revived connubial instincts are blind to Tom's irrepressible nature and to Meri's devious and needy traits (prying into Delia's secrets isn't Meri's first act of underhandedness; she's had other moments of black-heartedness). To give away details of the novel's crisis point would spoil the suspense, but it is fair to clue in those considering reading The Senator's Wife that perhaps the book's greatest controversy revolves around the unequal fates to which these two couples are consigned. One pair is utterly ruined while the other thrives on the perverse foundation of a lie. Oddly, Meri's parting thought is that she did what she did on that fateful day -- July 19, 1994 -- out of love. This statement at first strikes the reader (at least this reader) as wildly antipathetic and facilely self-serving...on the parts of both Meri and the author. It seems a way to close the book on a false "upbeat" notion that love is the excuse for all character flaws. And it seems to cheapen the very word "love." However, after taking time to let the novel, including its conclusion, percolate, the nuances of the meanings of "love" do break through the initial shock of Meri's assertion. There is an argument (though perhaps not a winning one) to be made that some love relationships were strengthened and others made possible by what happened. Still, the human longing for justice recoils at the unequal outcome and mourns for the road not taken.

This imbalance, along with other elements to be discussed below, arouses passionate and often pugnacious reactions in readers. Scan and google for reviews of Miller's The Senator's Wife and see how many reviewers have steam coming out their ears. Miller gets lambasted for all sorts of perceived shortcomings: Her book is a soap opera. She writes the male characters as mere paper cut-outs. She is penning a thinly disguised Hilary Clinton-type of wife in Delia. She is an apologist for women who don't divorce chronically cheating husbands. And so on. Michiko Kakutani, of The New York Times, isn't alone in considering the two main female characters "often repellant." And Connie Schultz concluded her review in The Washington Post on an uneasy note of relief: "At story's end, one can imagine most wives shaking their heads and mumbling, 'At least my marriage isn't that bad.' Most real-life senators' wives would likely agree." She is in a position to know; she is a real-life senator's wife.

Well, if Miller has written a soap opera, it is one that begets many a serious point for conversation, especially among women. The Senator's Wife is fertile ground for vivacious exchanges in book club gatherings. The men in the novel aren't as fully developed as the women because they are not its focus; but a less passive, less oblivious Nathan and some insight into Tom's inner self would have injected a fuller-bodied feel to the book and would have been welcomed. The Hilary C. charge is easily made, but Delia is her own woman and anything more than superficial comparisons doesn't hold up well. And the fact is, many women married to serial adulterers don't divorce them, so why shouldn't Miller write fiction about that? Delia is more a commiserable than repellant woman; she sublimated her desire to have a monogamous, serene marriage so long, and then she grasped at the straw of Tom's stroke to grab a pale semblance of it. As to whether most marriages are as bad, each husband and wife will have to judge for themselves. Meri, Nathan, Delia, and Tom should have written the three aforementioned Aesop's morals on the walls of their psyches; if they had perhaps injury, danger and great offenses might have passed by. But whether their circumstances are really more calamitous than many actual couples' is an open question. 

I give Miller plaudits for The Senator's Wife. It's construction isn't tremendously tight and sometimes one thinks she let the plot write itself instead of keeping it firmly in her own hands. But this is a novel's image -- a fable -- of contradictions and real world messiness about marriage, romance, attraction, infidelity, betrayal, unalterable consequences, mother-daughter bonds, faux mother-daughter bonds, new mother insecurity, new husband/wife rapprochements, the bounds of privacy, sexual politics, and others issues. This is a novel that won't be forgotten an hour, a day, or a week after being read. See what you think.
  • Amazon readers rating: from 114 reviews

Read a chapter excerpt from The Senator's Wife at Random House

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About the Author:

Sue MillerSue Miller was born in Chicago in 1943, the second of four children; her father taught church history at the University of Chicago.  She describes herself as "a reader, a painter, an inventor of solitary projects, the quiet child in a fairly boisterous family." 

At sixteen, she began Radcliffe College, but was in her own words, "too young to have done this." She graduated at twenty and was married within two months. Her son was born in 1968, but was separated and then divorced from her husband a few years later.

Her duties as a single mother left her with little time to write for many years, and as a result she did not publish her first novel until 1986, after spending almost a decade in various fellowships and teaching positions. Since then, two of her novels have been made into feature films, and her book While I Was Gone was an Oprah's Book Club pick in 2000.

She lives in Boston, Massachusetts. About Us | Subscribe | Review Team | History | ©1998-2014