I have been a fan of Sue Miller’s novels since her groundbreaking work The Good Mother. Miller, like Anne Tyler, writes what I guess would be called literary domestic fiction, which, I think, is very hard to do well: novels about ordinary women's lives told with great good grace and in fine writing style. Fiction that manages to be about the reality that many of us deal with every day. Neither Tyler nor Miller talk down to women or trivialize either their lives or their domestic concerns, and both writers go straight to the core of women’s hearts and minds — which is why both have such loyal and devoted followings among intelligent readers.
The Senator’s Wife, Miller’s latest, out now in paperback, is no exception. Beautifully written and expertly plotted as all Miller’s novels are, the book is an engaging and even enthralling read, as the author takes us deep into the lives of two very different women who become friends by chance.
Meri is a career woman in her late 30s, newly married and recently moved with her professor husband to a small college town in New England where they buy the other half of a house owned by Delia and her absent husband, a former influential senator. Meri and Delia quickly become friends, of sorts, but the relationship is not all it seems. Delia, in her mid-70s, is a more traditional wife and mother, yet her marriage to her husband Tom is anything but. Tom is a chronic philanderer and over the years Delia has had to deal with, cope with, and learn to live in her own fashion with, his womanizing — something which shocks those around her who know about it, and is a secret which must be kept from most others in her life. Perhaps because Meri counts herself as a feminist, when she finds herself accidentally pregnant too soon into her more traditional marriage and learns, by subterfuge, of Delia’s arrangement she finds herself, surprisingly, almost envying it.
Miller asks, quite clearly and interestingly: What is love, what does it mean, and what do we do with it? How do we practice it? How do we live it? And do we care what others think of how we live? The denouement of the novel is a challenging one but how Miller brings the novel to its surprising and satisfying conclusion is another testament to her talent.
Miller manages to get deeply inside not only the characters of both women, but of their husbands, too, and of the political times of the period in which much of the novel is set, the years 1993 and 1994. But she also takes us back to Delia’s earlier years and brings the novel nearly up to present day. The conversations between the characters are plentiful and realistic, the details and descriptions are carefully drawn and we see each character and setting absolutely clearly, so much so that if any of them were to walk into our house we would recognize them immediately. That is one of Miller’s great gifts.
Miller is a novelist to be read and treasured. Anyone who has not yet discovered her novels is in for a treat. Begin anywhere and dive deeply in. She will take you to places you have not been before.