As some of you may already know, I really like Sue Miller. There aren’t so very many literary writers out there who are able, or indeed prepared, to take on the deeply entrenched ideologies that govern a woman’s life. But Miller’s territory, at least in the novels by her that I’ve read so far, has been firmly grounded in the vexed question of what it means for a woman to be ‘good’. Being a good girl is one of the great guiding principles for women, one they either have to submit to or rebel against, but Sue Miller’s characters are interesting for the way they eschew either end of the spectrum to settle for awkward negotiations in the grey area in between, trying to follow their authentic desires in a way that doesn’t overturn the rules or hurt anybody. And what’s always interesting and provocative about Miller’s writing is that she suggests such a pathway simply isn’t possible.
The Senator’s Wife is a story that juxtaposes two marriages, one at its hesitant beginning, the other at its more philosophical end. Meri and her new husband, Nathan, happen to move next door to an elderly woman, Delia, who is married to the one-time famous senator, Tom Naughton. Being a professor of history and politics at the nearby college, Nathan is starry eyed about the neighbours, but it’s Meri who strikes up a close friendship with Delia, charmed and soothed by the older woman’s good humour, her generosity, her welcoming nature. Meri is one of Miller’s young women scarred by a loveless childhood, and she is, by contrast, uneasy with just about everything in her life. Prickly, insecure and just a teeny bit vindictive, Meri’s worst qualities have been brought to the surface by the upheaval of a move and a marriage, both of which have compromised her autonomy. She is drawn to Delia for the older woman’s ability to make sense of life, and to find the inner resources to respond with grace to all it brings.
We find out from the start of the novel that Delia has had plenty of practice in making compromises. Tom Naughton, who is suspiciously absent from her home, has been separated from her for years, after a string of infidelities. But Delia, with her gentle, forgiving nature, loves him still, and over the years they have remained friends and lovers, much to the chagrin of her children. When Delia is away in her second home in France, Meri checks the house in her absence and commits the indiscretion of reading Delia’s private correspondence, and the story of their marriage falls into her lap. She isn’t appalled by it, but fascinated. It seems to Meri that Delia has somehow managed a life that’s been vivid and engaged and full of romance. Everything about Delia’s world, from her errant but charismatic husband to her beautifully arranged house looks like it might contain a lesson for Meri, if she only knew how to emulate.
But then both women have to face up to significant challenges, Meri with motherhood, and Delia with caring for a sick husband, and what has been a supportive relationship between the women takes an unexpected and destructive turn.
It would be too easy to see this novel in black and white as a clash between the good and loving Delia and the needy, insecure Meri. I think it’s more accurate to see Miller suggesting that both women are perverse in their desires. Meri doesn’t want what she is supposed to want – the lovely house, the new baby, the ambitious husband all turn her into a ghost of herself, over-extended, frightened and closed-up. Delia, by contrast, wants what she shouldn’t want, the husband who has wronged her so many times that in the eyes of the world he no longer deserves her. I think the story only works when the reader has some sympathy for Meri in her plight, bewildered and isolated in new motherhood, and when we see something oddly possessive about Delia’s behaviour towards her ill husband. Then the women’s fates can be understood to be finely balanced. By the end of the story, Miller has us troubled in our sympathy for both women; it seems wrong that culture should reproach them for their authentic feelings and force them into adopting orthodox responses, and yet those feelings lead them into some decidedly dodgy situations.
For we can also see this novel as a tale of fine women made messy by their need for male attention, by their imperious desires. The sexual instinct is often pronounced in Miller’s characters; she presents it as what is most genuine and often most rewarding in relationships. But it is also the need that leads women to commit their worst errors. Miller is obdurate: the erotic is a girl’s best friend, but it can make her behave like a demon. And the attachment to the man is repeatedly what comes first in her women’s lives, beyond their relationship with their children, and well beyond their friendships with one another.
The back of my book’s cover suggests this is a good book for a book club discussion, but I’m not so sure it wouldn’t lead to a fraught evening. I’d still recommend it, though. I really enjoyed it, as an intriguing and challenging book that asks uncomfortable questions, and as a narrative that is consistently well-written, engaging and elegant.