I’m a big fan of Sue Miller, ever since I read The Good Mother years ago. Her books are domestic in detail, and yet capture ordinary people in painful dilemmas that set their lives off into new trajectories. The Senator’s Wife is such a book.
The book revolves around two women living in adjoining houses in New England: Meri a young, married faculty-wife and new mother, and her older neighbour Delia, the estranged but still emotionally attached wife of a well-known liberal Senator. Meri surreptitiously learns of Delia’s relationship with her philandering political husband while negotiating her own tentative marriage and new career, cut short when she unexpectedly falls pregnant. When the Senator suffers a stroke and is brought home to Delia’s house, his decline and helplessness mirrors Meri’s post-natal depression and feelings of inadequacy with her own new baby. As with Sue Miller’s other books there is an inexorable crisis, foreshadowed in an ever-tightening string of contingencies, so that as a reader you almost want to look away before the crash.
More than her other books, this one seemed a particularly physical book: breathy, sticky and uncomfortably intimate.
I think of Sue Miller and Anne Tyler as similar types of writers. I enjoy them both, but in both this and Anne Tyler’s most recent book Digging to America, I found myself shifting restlessly at the Mills and Boon aspects that threatened to submerge the narrative at any minute. But, particularly with Sue Miller, just as I’m about to admit disappointment, she breaks through with cutting observations that capture the pain and complexity of just living. For instance, Delia is being pressured by her adult daughter Nancy over the arrangements for the senator’s care after he has suffered the stroke.
Desperate or not, after Nancy left, Delia has lain awake for a long time in her bed, feeling a kind of terror envelop her. What frightened her was that she wasn’t sure she could resist her daughter’s power. She thought this might be the moment, actually, the moment she’d heard about from a friend or two- recollected sadly, ruefully- when the grown children swept in and irresistibly took over your life. When you could no longer say no, because it was clear that all the things you thought of as belonging to you were in the process of becoming theirs- their possessions, and of course, their heavy burdens too: your life, your spouse’s life, your illness, his illness, your death. The moment when you owed them something, when you had to give way, out of a kind of fairness to them and then also because you just didn’t have the strength left anymore to fight. (p. 191)
Her observations here are those of experience: of being daughter and partner herself. It’s almost as if she has been eavesdropping on your own family dynamics with its fears and joys. Here she is on an older woman’s feelings for her adult son as she watches him meeting his father Tom for the first time, after he has suffered the stroke:
She watched Evan, his beautiful face lifting in response to Tom, smiling, talking. How much he had changed over the years!…And yet the love she felt for him was unchanged, was based on who he’d been and who he still was to her. This is how it is with your children, she thought. You hold all the versions of them there ever were simultaneously in your heart. (p.276)
It’s these small insights into our shared vulnerabilities and pleasures that draws me back to Sue Miller again and again. I shut each book of hers with admiration at her ability to set up, almost without your awareness of it, scenarios that suspend her characters exquisitely over a dilemma that is much bigger than the domestic setting she has drawn so carefully.