On Sue Miller

It seems like ages since I finished a book because I’ve had too many on the go at once, but this morning, I finally put down Sue Miller’s The Good Mother and it was with a sigh of complicated satisfaction. I can’t remember who recommended this to me when I asked for suggestions but I send out grateful thanks as this is one brilliantly written, atmospheric, intelligent, acutely sensitive and utterly compelling. I’m trying to think how best to talk about it without giving the plot away, as its twists are essential to reading pleasure (although I’m not sure pleasure is quite the right word here). Anyhow, it concerns our narrator, Anna Dunlap, who tells us her story in the first person from a point in the future when it is long over and done with. She begins by explaining her early childhood to anxiously demanding parents who long for her to be special. Her mother comes from a large, wealthy family, in which achievement is all and she is in competition with her sisters, Anna’s aunts, for the most outwardly impressive family set-up. Anna has some talent at playing the piano, but when it becomes apparent that this will never be sufficient for a musical career, there is a sense in which she feels abandoned by her family, rejected into the realms of the ordinary. Only one of her relations, her aunt Babe, the youngest and most rebellious member, provides any kind of significant unconditional, open love for Anna, and Babe turns out to have her own tragedies.

Anna marries and has a daughter, Molly, and when the story opens, she is alone with her in the days immediately after a perfectly amicable divorce from her husband, Brian. It seems to have been an empty, drifting sort of marriage, and one that they are both happy to leave behind them. Being a single mother is not easy, the divorce is one more black mark against her in the balance sheet of her family, but Anna is succeeding in putting her life back together when she falls passionately in love with an artist, Leo. Now I’ll have to skip over a lot of plot here as I don’t want to give the game away, but Anna ends up in a bitter custody battle with Brian, and what is really on trial is her existence as a sexual being. Compared with what I was reading about Anne Sexton (for instance), Anna has done nothing to be ashamed of, but once a story enters the public domain of a law court and encounters the knee-jerk moralizing of a puritanical society, reason, compassion and understanding go out the window. I’m really intrigued by the way that the law is so regularly represented in literature as a blinkered and prejudiced, arbitrary sop to the most clichéd of public opinions. The law is there in stories not to bring about justice, but to safeguard a culture’s cherished beliefs. This book reminded me a lot of Albert Camus’s The Outsider in which Meursault is condemned to death essentially for not having cried at his mother’s funeral. But thinking about it, literature is there to open the reader’s mind to the multiplicity in stories, to the complexity of any tale and the wealth of possible interpretations each one contains within the warp and weft of its pattern. Its relationship to stories is in direct opposition to that of the law, which takes two opposing interpretations and decides which one is right in a way that alters life irrevocably for all who are involved. For literature this is a travesty of the power of stories, an outrage committed against the creation of meaning, unless we’re talking about crime fiction, where the two sets of narratives, literary and legal, find a way to go hand in hand.

But what is also at the heart of this book is a subtle and careful inquiry into the concept of the false self. Children who find their sense of self compromised by parents who need them to ‘be’ something too much (good, clever, pretty, acceptable, complicit, etc) often develop a false self, a complicated way of acting that looks very natural but which hides a threatened private part that is often demonized and longed for at the same time. Anna’s early experiences lead her to want very much for an open, honest, accepting climate for her daughter to grow up in. But as the story progresses so she comes to question the possibility of mothering without certain boundaries, even when their absence seems to be a good and truthful thing. Throughout the story there is a fascination with issues of distance, with the bliss and the threat of intimacy, the loneliness and the safety of isolation. The distances which are complex enough in everyday relationships become ten times more difficult to negotiate when it comes to motherhood, and for a woman who must be both parent and lover, mother and independent person, it is all too easy to misjudge the gaps that can be driven through. Once again, this book presents a painful paradox; mothers are always to blame and this is both an outrage and an unavoidable truth.

I haven’t really begun to do justice to this story, as I want everyone to go away and read it. It’s very, very good. I have nearly finished Orhan Pamuk’s The Black Book, as well. I’ve been reading this so very slowly, but I still feel I couldn’t have done it any other way. Posting about it is going to be quite a challenge. But once I’ve finished it, then I think I’ve finally cleared my backlog of books and I can embark on a new set. I’ve committed to read Alice Munroe’s The View from Castle Rock for A Curious Singularity, and Margaret Laurence’s The Stone Angel for The Slaves of Golconda. I also want to read Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer, encouraged by a friend who did graduate studies on his work. I’ve only ever read the feminist Kate Millett on Miller, so I’m looking forward to reading him and seeing for myself how controversial his representation of women is. But first, tomorrow, I’m hoping to finish Beth Janzen’s poetry collection, The Enchanted House. So, lots of good stuff ahead.


19 thoughts on “On Sue Miller

  1. This is a great book. I read it at least 15 years ago and loaned it to a friend. I think she must have loved the book too, because she never gave it back!

    In my opinion, everything Miller writes is genius. I can recommend While I Was Gone.

  2. Kimbofo – it’s lovely to see you here! I couldn’t believe this was a first novel, it’s written with such assurance and such brilliance. I’m so glad you mention While I Was Gone, as I have it on my shelves and I was wondering if it would be a good choice to read next. Thanks for telling me about The Senator’s Wife, too. I’d like to read all Miller’s novels now, and I’ll be looking out for it.

  3. I’m always interested in the self and the false self, which is at the centre of Plath from what I’ve been reading. I think there’s at least a bit of a false self in everyone, given that so much is derived from our human relationships from day one, with desires from others placed upon us, even unconsciously. Equally we have desires of our own with regard to those who nurture or generally impact on our lives. Except in a very homogenous family and society there are bound to be some conflicts needing resolution in the mix. Do you think this would be a book for me? As usual I’ve never heard of her, but The Senator’s Wife is in paperback on 3 March I see. I shall ponder the interesting point about the law in fiction, but I won’t name outright one Victorian novelist who often featured the law in his works! Certainly there is a sense that the law slows down and wears away the human spirit in what he has to write.

  4. I read this one a long time ago, and remember really enjoying it. I found the idea of the main character’s “existence as a sexual being” being put on trial fascinating. I bet I would enjoy rereading this one, now that I’ve had children. I’ve been toying with the idea of getting a copy of The Senator’s Wife–so maybe I’ll do that instead. Thanks for the insightful review!

  5. You make this book sound wonderful Litlove. I’ve not read anything by Miller and now I’ll have to add her to that ever-growing list. I hope you get to read Stone Angel for the Slaves discussion. I finished it this week and really liked it a lot. What a character Hagar is. I’m going to see about joining you guys over at A Curious Singularity – I must read more short stories 🙂

  6. Once again you’ve reminded me of a book I read long ago and enjoyed so much – now I desperatley want to re-read it, particularly in light of this concept of the “false self” you discuss. (I feel another midnight raid on the bookstacks coming on!) I’ve not loved everything of Sue Miller’s, but this one and While You Were Gone are favorites.

    I remember begin enraged at the way Anna’s sexuality was put on trial in that book, the way a woman’s life could be at the mercy of “knee jerk moralizing.”

    I enjoyed reading your thoughts on this book. I’ve long been drawn to reading about motherhood- probably ever since I became a mother 28 years ago! One novel that made a lasting impression on me was Mary Gordon’s Men and Angels. It’s an older book (published about 1984 I think) and looks at the difficulty of combining family life with work and the life of the mind. It’s beautifully written, although rather disturbing at times. (Oh my, now I’ hankering to re-read that one again too!)

    Enjoy all your new reading – I just finished The View From Castle Rock, which I enjoyed a great deal. I’m actually becoming quite the short story lover after all!

  7. Bookboxed – oh absolutely; as with all psychoanalytic concepts, the false self is only wrong if it feels wrong, if it prevents the individual from functioning happily and healthily. I think you would like this, not least because it really is so beautifully written. And I would love to know your opinion of the husband, who seems to me to be the character most at fault in what occurs. Or we could both read The Senator’s Wife – I feel a leaning in that direction too! Gentle Reader – so glad to know you liked it, and if you do get The Senator’s Wife I’d love to know what you make of it. I do enjoy your reviews so much. Iliana – yes, DO join in at A Curious Singularity – that would be wonderful! And I have The Stone Angel all lined up and ready to go. I’m really looking forward to it, and even more so now that I know you enjoyed it! And do read Miller if you get a chance. I really think you’d like her! Ravenous Reader – what a lovely comment! Thank you so much for the recommendation of Mary Gordon (the name is kind of familiar but I can’t think where I’ve heard it). I shall be looking out for that book (sounds right up my street!). And I’m delighted to know you enjoyed the Munroe. I couldn’t agree with you more – I would never have read so many short stories if it weren’t for the blogs!

  8. “literature is there to open the reader’s mind to the multiplicity in stories, to the complexity of any tale and the wealth of possible interpretations each one contains within the warp and weft of its pattern. Its relationship to stories is in direct opposition to that of the law, which takes two opposing interpretations and decides which one is right in a way that alters life irrevocably for all who are involved. For literature this is a travesty of the power of stories, an outrage committed against the creation of meaning, unless we’re talking about crime fiction, where the two sets of narratives, literary and legal, find a way to go hand in hand.”

    An insightful comparison.

  9. I must read this. It may be totally irrelevant but what you say about this book reminds me of a student whose search for justice against a man who had systematically abused her as a child (and I had reasons to know that her claims were valid) was thrown out of court because of evidence brought about her current life style. If it had been possible for the jury to know about previous incidents it would never have happened as it was she was a student he was a well dressed middle class man and the rest is history.

  10. Ann – Oooh that kind of story makes me mad. Yes, this book follows through the same kind of logic that a woman who is open to sexuality must necessarily be asking for it/guilty/beyond the reach of justice. Do read the Miller – I’d love to know what you think of it.

  11. This book sounds great! I listened to a couple Sue Miller novels on audio quite a while ago, and I remember liking them, although the details escape me (I just know neither of them was The Good Mother!). I think I’d enjoy this one.

  12. This sounds really good. How you do get me excited about books! I wonder if we will ever get to a point where women/mothers are not to blame for everything? That sure will be a day worth celebrating.

  13. I had (with others, I think?) recommended the Miller. Glad it worked!

    The other book I’d mentioned was Unless by Carol Shields, and I do hope you read that one too, for I’d really love to see your take on it.

  14. Stefanie – oh wouldn’t it just! I do think you would like this one, Stefanie. It is really well written and then a throat-grabber, too. Brown Paper – thank you SO much, once again. It was a brilliant suggestion. And I will most certainly be reading Unless – it is sitting on my shelves looking very enticing indeed.

  15. This sounds like something I’d like to read. And I’ve never heard of Miller until now. I can also put in a second vote for Unless – I just finished it last month and its an incredible excavation of possibly one of the worst trials any mother should have to face. However, I will save the one criticism I have of the book until you’ve read it as well!

  16. Pingback: Best Book Club Books 2 « Tales from the Reading Room

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