- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 3, 2008

THE SENATOR’S WIFE

By Sue Miller

Knopf, $24.95, 306 pages

REVIEWED BY JOHN GREENYA

Sue Miller must have Alexander Pope’s observation that “the proper study of mankind is man” pinned above her writing desk. For at the heart of every one of her 10 books, which include eight novels, one short story collection, and a memoir (of her father) is a laser-like examination of her characters’ motives and intentions, conscious or otherwise.

Raised in Chicago by parents who were, in her words, “ecclesiastical to their roots,” Ms. Miller praises their struggle “to make their lives meaningful in terms of witness to conscience, to pacifism, to racial equality.” She feels those noble efforts may have produced, in her, “a tendency towards self-examination and examination of others — intention, meanings, scruples, ethics — that seems to connect directly to that tradition, and has served me well as a writer.”

Maybe that was the cause, maybe not, but Sue Miller is right on the money in recognizing her own tendency to examine her characters’ intentions, meanings, scruples and ethics. And there’s more than enough evidence to support her belief that it has served her well as a writer.

Two decades ago, Ms. Miller received both critical and commercial success for her first novel, “The Good Mother,” about a woman caught in a horrible dilemma, but wider recognition, and a mega-jump in sales, came five years and five books later when Oprah tapped “While I Was Gone,” for her book club.

At the time, Ms. Miller told an interviewer she’d learned an important lesson the hard way. “The first novel I wrote, which was never published, was one in which nothing happened. Now nothing happened rather elegantly in my view, yet there’s no denying that nothing happened. It was a post-suicide story that focused on the wife’s attempt to understand her husband’s tragic action. It was one idea stretched gossamer-thin over three hundred pages … I couldn’t get an agent for that novel.

“Soon after I turned to Grimm’s Fairy Tales. I was struck by the directness of the stories, the swiftness with which the reader was dropped into the action of the tale. I thought, this is what I have to do. This is what I need — incident.

“I discovered that the more event there was, the more speculative I could be, because there was enough life to underpin the abstractions. I think of incident as the pegs on which you hang everything you plan to dwell in.” She’s been following that self-prescription ever since.

As “The Senator’s Wife”, opens, newlyweds Meri and Nate are first-house hunting in Williston, Conn., where he’s just found a teaching position that has put him on the tenure track. Nate’s upper-middle class background has given him what Emerson called “the confidence of boys who are sure of their supper,” but Meri is neither from or of that world, and the first chapter, which she narrates, contains several hints that that there could be marital trouble ahead.

Instead of developing that theme, Ms. Miller introduces Delia Naughton, the title character, a much older woman whose marriage has had the kind of troubles, and worse, that the author suggests might lie ahead for that of Meri and Nate. Delia is the wife of former U.S. Senator, Tom Naughton, an iconic figure of the Kennedy era, and still well-known, if no longer in public service, and the young couple is pleased to learn she will be their neighbor if they buy the house. The young couple knows the older couple separated years ago, but they don’t know that they’ve remained involved with one another through all the years since.

Delia is still in Paris, where she spends several months each year in an apartment she owns, when the young people move in, but upon her return, Delia and Meri and Nate get on famously, and soon are the kind of neighbors who easily exchange both gifts and favors. With her usual skill, Ms. Miller delineates the characters, especially the two women, within a few short chapters. Nate remains, as does Tom in later sections, somewhat shadowy, but you “see” Delia and Meri in perfect focus.

Months later, when Delia goes back to Paris, by arrangement, Meri checks on her house each day. But soon Meri, perhaps in search of the source of her older neighbor’s self-possession and confidence, is doing more than taking in the mail and watering the plants. She’s creeping up the stairs and going through Delia’s past, by way of her desk, eventually reading her stash of letters from Tom. She learns of the first major incident in Delia’s life, Tom’s serial infidelities and the string of lies and broken promises that followed.

Having sinned, Meri now desperately seeks forgiveness (a favorite theme in Sue Miller’s novels), but that would require confession. Even if she could muster the courage, she can’t ‘fess up to Delia because she’s still in Paris, and she fears Nate, given his Waspish New England heritage, might not be able to forgive her for an act she’s certain he would never have done.

Ms. Miller once wrote, of her characters, “It seems we need someone to know us as we are — with all we have done — and forgive us,” she says. “We need to tell. We need to be whole in someone’s sight: Know this about me, and yet love me. Please.” That’s definitely what Meri wants, and it almost seems forthcoming, but then Tom Naughton re-enters the picture, and, with that, the lives of all four central characters are thrown into flux.

Near the end, when all hell breaks loose, once again it’s because of something Meri did. I’ll not reveal the details, other than to say it is not what you are probably thinking. In the last chapter, the author fast forwards the narrative from 1994 into 2007, but, given the impact of the emotional devastation of the penultimate chapter, it’s not an ending that will satisfy all readers, to put it kindly.

Nonetheless, what we have here, once again, is a brilliant display of Sue Miller’s unique ability to pull back the curtain and reveal the very thin line that humans often walk between deed and misdeed, step and misstep. “For me,” Ms. Miller once wrote, “everyday life in the hands of a fine writer seems … charged with meaning. When I write, I want to bring a sense of that charge, that meaning, to what may fairly be called the domestic.”

“The Senator’s Wife” is proof that more than 20 years after “The Good Wife,” Sue Miller is still able to bring that charge … and then some. She is a bestselling author who deserves to be.

John Greenya is a Washington-area writer.

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