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Sue Miller: Ms. Miller turns to politics, as the wife of a senator deals with his chronic infidelity.

Sue Miller's latest novel, The Senator's Wife, explores one of her trademark themes--the complexities of marriage--as two wives, one a new mother-to-be and the other wed to a philandering senator, come to terms with their joys, disappointments, and betrayals. Described as "the doyenne of domesticity," Miller plumbed the depths of women's experiences in her first novel, The Good Mother (1986); since then, she has been weaving domestic tapestries of fate, human will, love, sin, and forgiveness. While she provides no easy answers to marital infidelity, sibling rivalry, destructive love affairs, the difficult task of caring for elderly parents, or the effects of alternative lifestyles, Miller probes beneath the surface to reveal the choices we make--and, most often, live with.

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Although Miller claims that only some of her characters and fictional episodes are semiauto-biographical, she is proof that experience rewards writing. The second of four children, Miller was born in 1943 into an ecclesiastical family in Chicago. Her father taught church history at the University of Chicago, and she grew up surrounded by relatives, sermons, books, and poetry. At age 16, Miller enrolled at Radcliffe College; she married just a few months after graduation. To support her husband through medical school, she worked at various odd jobs. Two years after her son was born in 1968, she and her husband separated. Miller spent the next 13 years as a single parent in Cambridge, Massachusetts, renting out rooms in her home and running the Harvard Yard Child Care Center, where she eagerly listened to women's stories.

Miller's time as a working, single mother living in the 1960s in Cambridge, Massachusetts--at that time a communal, family-oriented city--shaped her outlook on life and, subsequently, the stories that unfolded when she found time to write. After her first story was published in 1981, Miller started teaching in writing programs in the Boston area. The Bunting Fellowship she received from Radcliffe in 1983 and a grant she received from the Massachusetts Art Council in 1984 allowed her to focus on writing and led to the publication of the phenomenally successful The Good Mother. In 1985, she married fellow writer Douglas Bauer, whom she later divorced. In 1987, she published a collection of short stories, Inventing the Abbotts, which further launched her career.

While readers generally embrace Miller's domestic realism, responses to the author's brand of women--not all feminists in the classic sense--vary. The Good Mother garnered praise for its realistic depiction of motherhood but some criticism for the protagonist's defense of her lover. Other novels have been categorized as too narrow in their subject matter: Miller is, not surprisingly, often compared to Anne Tyler in the United States and Joanna Trollope in Britain. But few writers explore conflict and emotion--and our acknowledgement or our denial of it--as richly as Miller. "You don't change anything by changing your life dramatically," she told The New York Times. "There's the sense that you haul it all along with you. You're accountable finally for your life" (3/8/99).

THE BEST-SELLING FIRST NOVEL

The Good Mother (1986)

Miller's debut novel, which centers on a custody battle following a divorce, explores the conflict between motherhood and romantic love, a theme that recurs in later works. In 1988, the book was made into a movie, starring Diane Keaton, Liam Neeson, and Jason Robards, and directed by Leonard Nimoy.

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THE STORY: Newly divorced Anna Dunlap, from a cold New England family, finds comfort from her three-year-old daughter, Molly, and her new, handsome lover, Leo Cutter. For the first time in her life, Anna feels sexy and sensual. Then her ex-husband, a stodgy lawyer, cites shocking claims that their child is at risk and sues for custody. The court battle that follows jeopardizes not only Anna's new romance but also her role as "good mother."

"The Good Mother would be an extraordinarily skillful piece of fiction from a veteran, so as a first book it is a very remarkable accomplishment." CATHERINE PETROSKI, CHICAGO TRIBUNE, 4/27/86

"[The book's] real insights involve Anna's upbringing and role models--the psychic baggage she's brought to bear on her own self-image. ... But the problem with The Good Mother is in its implicit message that Anna's actions somehow warrant the losses she endures--that women can't have it all, at least in the neighboring territories of passion and children." GAIL CALDWELL, BOSTON GLOBE, 4/10/86

THE BIG-SCREEN MOVIE

Inventing the Abbots (1987) and Other Stories

Set mostly in the 1980s, these 11 stories extend the inquiries about relationships that Miller began in The Good Mother. In 1997, the title story was made into a movie, starring Liv Tyler, Joaquin Phoenix, Billy Crudup, and Jennifer Connelly, and directed by Pat O'Connor.

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THE STORIES: In the title story, two working-class brothers yearn for three daughters of the most fashionable family in a small Midwestern town. "Tyler and Brina" features a needy man and his forgiving lover. "Expensive Gifts" portrays an emotionally alienated woman--as lonely with men as without them. Other stories explore unhappy parents and expectant children, disappointed lovers, modern middle-class life, midlife crises, and the difficulty of achieving satisfying human connections.

"Miller displays great sympathy for contemporary, middle-class adults who can't quite cope with the realities of growing up and must wrestle with baffling relationships, edgy children, sudden gray hairs, dead-end jobs and mortality. Their experiences, thanks to Miller's graceful prose and some cleverly kinky twists, make for provocative reading and provide many unexpected jolts of recognition for readers of a certain age." GARY DRETZKA, LOS ANGELES TIMES, 5/3/87

"Poignancy is the hallmark of this collection: some of its stories are almost painful in their open examination of unhappy lives. ... Her stories are magnified glimpses of modern life." VIVIENNE HEINES, HOUSTON CHRONICLE, 8/16/87

OPRAH'S BOOK CLUB PICK

While I Was Gone (1999)

An Oprah pick in 2000, While I Was Gone again asks what it means to be a good wife and have trust in faith--not only in the context of family but also in the deepest recesses of conscience and consciousness.

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THE STORY: Jo Becker has a loving husband, a beautifully restored farmhouse in western Massachusetts, a career as a veterinarian, and doting daughters. Her seemingly faultless life, however, is interrupted when an encounter with an old bohemian friend, with whom she lived in a group house in Cambridge decades earlier, brings back memories of a brutal murder. As she recalls her long-lost freedom and embarks on new, ambiguous, romantic territory, Jo just may topple her picture-perfect life.

"A painstaking meditation on marital fidelity, it swoops gracefully between the past and the present, between a woman's complex feelings about her husband and her equally complex fantasies--and fears--about another man. ... I can think of few contemporary novelists--John Updike and Frederick Buechner are two others--who write so well about the trials of faith." JAY PARINI, NEW YORK TIMES, 2/21/99

"In this highly confessional narrative, Jo trusts her husband enough to air her flashes of self-pity and episodes of melodramatic regret. ... Miller moves so expertly through her delicate portrayal of Jo's life in the first 200 pages that it's difficult to understand why she barrels through this complex, exciting material toward the end." RON CHARLES, CHRISTIAN SCIENCE MONITOR, 2/11/99

IF YOU'D LIKE TO READ MORE ...

FAMILY PICTURES (1990)

When Lainey and David Eberhardt's child is diagnosed as autistic, the family goes into a tailspin. Four different family members tell their sides of the story.

FOR LOVE (1993)

When an old romance rekindles, an accidental death sets off serious inquiries into the nature of love and loss.

THE DISTINGUISHED GUEST (1995)

A proud, famous writer suffering from Parkinson's disease moves in with her son and daughter-in-law, and all of their lives change.

THE WORLD BELOW (2001)

When middle-aged, twice-divorced San Francisco school teacher Catherine Hubbard goes to live at her deceased grandmother's house in Vermont, secrets and similarities between both women emerge.

THE STORY OF MY FATHER (2004)

A Memoir

In her first nonfiction book, Miller poignantly recalls the descent of her gentle father, a minister, into Alzheimer's.

LOST IN THE FOREST (2005)

In northern California, a young girl seeks solace in a destructive love affair with a much older man after her step-father dies in a tragic accident. (**** SELECTION July/Aug 2005)

HER LATEST WORK

****

The Senator's Wife

Two marriages, two trajectories

When Meri and her new husband Nathan, a young professor, move to a New England college town in the early 1990s, Meri, who has worked her way up from nothing, is not at all sure she wants this new life. Then she meets the elderly Delia, who lives on the other side of their townhouse wall. To Meri, Delia epitomizes all that she is not--a glamorous, unconventional woman living in Paris part-time and married to a philandering, retired senator who keeps his own quarters. Fascinated, an unhappily pregnant Meri starts to snoop around as Delia is forced into an unfamiliar role. Soon, long hidden secrets and a terrible betrayal profoundly affect the two couples' lives.

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Knopf. 320 pages. $24.95. ISBN: 0307264203

Boston Globe ****

"No chronicler of family dilemmas is more comfortable with the minute ebb and flow of relationships that, over time, can wear down granite. ... The Senator's Wife delivers two differently flawed accounts of the state of wifehood in such a seamless form that the novel's bleakness registers only slowly and late." ELSBETH LINDNER

Minneapolis Star Tribune ****

"The Senator's Wife provocatively invites us to ponder: Have women's roles changed over the past 30 years as much as we might wish to believe? ... Meri revels in the power that small secrets and lies give her over her husband; Delia selfishly guards her emotional resources." DIANA POSTLETHWAITE

Rocky Mountain News ****

"The Senator's Wife is an engrossing character study of Meri and Delia, but the novel is also an irresistible page-turner. ... The novel is a fast and fascinating read, a provocative look at the construction of the American family and the institution of marriage." ASHLEY SIMPSON SHIRES

Seattle Times ****

"[The novel] shows her expertise at bringing a reader into her character's heads and into their living rooms, seamlessly depicting both familiar social ritual and the currents moving beneath it. ... [M]arriages, as Meri learns, each speak a language of their own." MOIRA MACDONALD

USA Today ****

"The very best stuff in the book belongs to Delia. ... the ending is complicated and intriguing. It's a talker." DEIRDRE DONAHUE

Los Angeles Times **

"The complexities set up in the exploration of Tom and Delia's union are too easily abandoned by Miller. ... You wonder, as in any broken relationship, what went wrong in The Senator's Wife and how it might have been prevented." VERONIQUE DE TURENNE

New York Times Book Review **

"These final chapters provided a cathartic conclusion, an end-of-birthing experience that all but erased the painful labor of reading that preceded it. ... Shock, deceit, desire and despair come together at once in a way that feels simply like fate." JUDITH WARNER

CRITICAL SUMMARY

In her latest novel, Sue Miller contemplates wifehood from the perspective of two women--one at the start of her marriage, the other reconciled to the direction her relationship has taken over the decades yet nonetheless hopeful for change. In capturing their dreams, fears, and disappointments, Miler paints a devastating, realistic, and unsentimental portrait of both Meri and Delia. What to make of the two negative reviews? They seemed complete opposites: the Los Angeles Times enjoyed the book until the twist at the end, whereas the New York Times Book Review admired only the climax. Yes, the novel is a domestic drama, with its compare-and-contrast marriage storylines, a tone that can be overly earnest, and protagonists that sometimes lack self-awareness. But there is good insight into character here, and the story's masterful plot twist--a final betrayal--reveals Miller's ample talents as a storyteller.
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Title Annotation:The Senator's Wife
Author:Teisch, Jessica
Publication:Bookmarks
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 1, 2008
Words:1977
Previous Article:Geraldine Brooks: from globe-trotting journalist to Pulitzer prize--winning novelist.
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