The Senator’s Wife

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.

15 thoughts on “The Senator’s Wife

  1. That about sums it up, Lilian! I really enjoyed it, but then I promised Stefanie and Pete I wouldn’t rave too much about books that passed through my hands for a few days. 🙂 And I can imagine people might have differing responses to this one. I was gripped by the growing friendship between the women, and then by the ways that they failed one another.

  2. Yes, Litlove, please let’s have some ‘This book is so crap I can’t give it away’ reviews. It’s making me itchy, thinking of all the books I’m neglecting, very itchy indeed.

  3. Litlove, I love you! I know we can’t all have the same literary tastes and it would be very boring if we did. But it’s such a pleasure to read a fine and provocative critic like yourself with whom I do share many tastes. I recently read this novel and agree with you about it, and about Sue Miller. She very rarely disappoints me, always skilful, unexpected and arousing complex feelings.

    Also, as I write this, I’m part-way through Dessaix’s book about Turgenev and liking it very much. I read and liked a lot of Turgenev when I was much younger, but knew nothing about his life. This will inspire me to reread him. I see from his list of works in the front of the book that Dessaix has collaborated with Drusilla Modjeska, also discovered via you and much loved by me 🙂

  4. Wonderful review, Litlove. I’ve had this book sitting on my shelves for a while and just haven’t gotten to it. I haven’t read anything by Sue Miller but am really curious to see what I’ll think of her books. They all sound interesting to me.

  5. Being somewhat perverse about this sort of thing, after you said it might provoke a fraught discussion, I plan to suggest this novel for my book club’s next book! Thanks for the lovely review 🙂

  6. I’ve been meaning to go back to Miller ever since I first discovered one of her other novels through a blog. I must make some time. For me the interesting thing about what you write here is what you say about Meri – “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.” You could have been describing me there. I would love to read this with my Wednesday reading group. I think we would split right down the middle on how we felt about these women.

  7. I remember listening to a few Sue Miller books on audio a while back, but don’t remember much, except that she writes about family and women’s lives. This is an interesting take on her work, and it makes me want to return to her at some point.

  8. Great review as always and I’m also glad that you provided a little escape clause at the end there for those of us who are opting out of taking on new reading at the moment. I’m adding Sue Miller to the TBR list anyway. I’m intrigued by the fraught evening full of challenging questions though. Sounds like an excellent book club meetig to attend (and then write about).

  9. This is an excellent review and done without throwing the whole thing away. I love “conceptual” reviews as in your description of Miller’s characters overall. Honestly, I haven’t read one since her first. I should. I sense from your review that she has developed. (who am i to say?) But also, there was a lot of “previewing” on the TV a few weeks ago about the show called THE SENATOR’S WIFE, which I guess is based on her book! No, no, I wouldn’t watch it. Little time for TV here. We use it sometimes to fall asleep to, though.
    Anyway, you can bet I will now check this book out.
    A good review does so much for a book.
    Wouldn’t it be one of the finer ways to make a living,too, to be a book reviewer?

  10. Pingback: BOOK:Old School « OH! BOOKS…PAPER…REAL LIFE…

  11. I enjoyed this book too, and Sue Miller is one of my favorite contemporary authors precisely because she rouses multiple feelings in me with her work. I don’t always like what her characters do, or the way they react, yet they’re always compelling and sympathetic in some way, and make me look at myself and my own feelings in different lights.

    Some years ago she wrote a memoir about the time she spent taking care of her father when he developed Alzheimer’s. In it, you can see some of the origin of the conflicted good girl characters who appear in her novels.

  12. Well even in your not raving you still make me want to read the book! I can see how it might be a good book club read but it would have to be a group of either very close friends or complete strangers, probably best if complete strangers.

  13. So sorry to be slow in replying, blogging friends – the flu laid me low for a several days there. But I am now catching up again, and I appreciated your comments so much when I found them. Most therapeutic!

    Doctordi – do not worry – whatever you read will be good and right for you, and it doesn’t matter if you read fifty books or five. It’s only reading and thinking about what you’ve read that counts, not quantity. And I have just taken a break from recommending anything at all. 😉

    Jean – the feeling is completely mutual! I love, love the fact that we are enjoying the same books, and following the same reading trails, and you remind me I have Loren Eiseley’s All The Strange Hours on my shelf and that I must read it very soon. In fact, it may be exactly the right thing. 🙂

    Verbivore – what I really appreciate about Miller is that she gives you a good readable story AND something to think about. I do think she’d be wonderful baby-feeding company.

    iliana – I would love to hear what you think of Miller. Do read her if you get a chance – she is always provocative and interesting. Actually, she’d be a good Slaves pick one of these fine days.

    Gentle Reader – how I wish I could be a fly on the wall! But I’ve said that before about your book club! I’d love to know what you make of this book if you read it, and would be very keen to hear how the discussion went if you chose it for a group read!

    Ann – I have every respect for your reading groups and would love to know what you make of Miller, if you do tackle her. I find her extremely interesting in the way she suggests that women’s lives are open to domination by certain prevalent stories; the story of reproduction, of handing down a story from mother to daughter, is one of her big ones. I do appreciate the way she challenges this from all kinds of different angles. I’d be so interested to hear your thoughts on her writing.

    Dorothy – it might be that she is particularly interesting to women who feel they have been through a decision-making process over the question of their family lives – how to run them, whether to have children, how to deal with their breakdown. It’s an interesting question, really, about the need to have empathy with the characters to make the story engage. It’s not always necessary, but I do wonder whether it helps with Sue Miller?

    Pete – one I’d like to watch from behind glass and then write about! 🙂 Sue Miller is a continually interesting writer – I’d suggest for you that you read her memoir about her father. I think that might have the most resonance. But there’s no hurry! 😉

    oh – I would love to earn a living as a book reviewer! Can you imagine how good your post would be every day? Thank you so much for the kind words – and I would love to know what you make of Miller if you read her again. I do wonder whether there is a television series based on the book – I guess it’s quite possible. Not that I could receive it over here, or indeed get to watch it with a husband and son jealously guarding the remote. 🙂

    Becca – I agree wholeheartedly with what you say. That’s exactly the same reason that I like Miller – she makes me think, and she makes me have complex emotions beyond just rooting for, or booing, a character. I haven’t read the memoir of her father, but I would love to, and I do believe it’s on my wish list currently. Christmas is coming! 🙂

    Stefanie – lol! And you have the book club composition quite right. Total strangers would be quite fun. If it’s any consolation, none of the books I’ve started in the past week has gripped me properly, so either it’s me (quite likely) or there will be a long wait before I do another review! 😉

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