Monday Book Talk: “The Senator’s Wife,” by Sue Miller

The Senator's Wife by Sue Miller

The Senator’s Wife
Sue Miller
Vintage, 2008 (paperback) (ISBN 0307276694 / 9780307276698)
Fiction, 320 pages

First sentence: From her perch in the middle of the backseat, Meri surveys the two in front—her husband, Nathan, and Sheila, the real estate agent

Random clip (page 23): “She makes her breakfast and sits listening to the news on the local public radio station. There’s much talk, about a year later, about the recovery from Hurricane Andrew in Florida.”

Book description: Meri is newly married, pregnant, and standing on the cusp of her life as a wife and mother, recognizing with some terror the gap between reality and expectation. Delia Naughton—wife of the two-term liberal senator Tom Naughton—is Meri’s new neighbor in the adjacent New England town house. Delia’s husband’s chronic infidelity has been an open secret in Washington circles, but despite the complexity of their relationship, the bond between them remains strong. What keeps people together, even in the midst of profound betrayal? How can a journey imperiled by, and sometimes indistinguishable from, compromise and disappointment culminate in healing and grace? Delia and Meri find themselves leading strangely parallel lives, both reckoning with the contours and mysteries of marriage, one refined and abraded by years of complicated intimacy, the other barely begun.

Comments: The Senator’s Wife is really about two wives who live next door to each other in a duplex for about a year – a year that turns out to be pivotal for them both. It’s a story about marriage and motherhood at different stages, and it reinforces the truism that no one really knows what goes on in a relationship except the people in it.

Meri meets Delia Naughton on the shared front porch of a duplex; she and her husband Nathan are about to buy one side of it, and Delia has been living on the other side for over thirty years. Meri, who tends to be drawn toward maternal figures, is fascinated by Delia, while Nathan is fascinated by Delia’s husband, retired senator Tom Naughton, who never seems to be around. Delia has an open, yet reserved, way about her that makes Meri very curious, and when Delia goes to Paris for a couple of months, Meri’s house-sitting gives her a chance to…well, snoop. What she learns makes her feel strange about her neighbors, especially when Tom Naughton eventually turns up at Delia’s. Meri feels strange about a lot of things that year. A Midwest native, she has relocated to the East Coast for her husband’s new faculty position, become a homeowner, found a new job, and unexpectedly gotten pregnant.

I’m not necessarily drawn to maternal figures, but I am somewhat intrigued by vital older women myself, and I shared Meri’s fascination with Delia. After a number of infidelities on Tom’s part, she’s adapted quite well to living on her own in the house they shared, and in her own apartment in Paris for four months each year. But while she can’t really live with Tom, she can’t quite live without him either; and despite his affairs, he really can’t let his wife go. The relationship they’ve maintained for over twenty years – to no one’s knowledge but their own – seems to work fairly well for them both…until Tom suffers a stroke. When Delia decides it’s up to her to assume the responsibility of caring for him, she brings him back home to stay.

Sue Miller’s writing is almost stream-of-consciousness in places, as she spends a lot of time inside both Delia’s and Meri’s heads. This is a novel of domestic drama, but not melodrama. While the details may vary, a lot of what makes up the story in The Senator’s Wife are things that happen every day – moments of marital intimacy and conflict; pregnancy, childbirth, and the difficult adjustments and sometime ambivalence of new motherhood (which I think Miller nails quite well); the mix of awkwardness and enjoyment in getting to know new people and places; and the challenges of aging and illness. The climax of the novel is not something that happens every day, but it makes sense in context, although I admit I was a bit dismayed by it. I was also a bit uncomfortable with how sexually charged the story was. As a writer whose novels tend to be character-driven and relationship-based, Miller has never shied away from sex as a theme or topic. I don’t think she used it inappropriately or gratuitously here,  but I just felt that she made direct reference to it more than was strictly necessary to serve the story; implication would have served just fine in a number of instances, in my opinion.

I’ve read most of Sue Miller’s novels, and I think I’d place this one in the upper ranks, although Family Pictures remains my favorite. The Senator’s Wife was absorbing reading – thoughtfully written, with characters and situations that I’m still thinking about.

Rating: 3.75/5

Other bloggers’ reviews
SmallWorld Reads
A Book a Week
Hey Lady! Whatcha Readin’? 
A Reader’s Journal
Just Books
The Book Lady’s Blog 
Book Addiction

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  1. It’s always nice to read another review so soon after I’ve read a book that gave me so much to think about.

    As surprised as I was by the ending, I thought it made sense in its own way, and it didn’t really bother me. Not something I would have done, by I can see how it happened and gave each person something they needed. As for being sexually charged, that also made sense to me…

    Very nice review. You summarized the plot and how the relationship between Meri and Delia develops much better than I would have.

  2. Nice review. I’ve read two of her other novels and enjoyed them but didn’t know about Family Pictures. Thanks for mentioning it in this review.

  3. I LOVE Sue Miller; from The Good Mother on, she has been one of my favorites. So while I haven’t read this one yet, I definitly will.

  4. Rebecca – I agree that the ending, in context, did make sense. I was getting the feeling that something quite wrong was bound to happen…

    It wasn’t the sexually-charged atmosphere of the book that bothered me – again, in context, it was fitting. It was Miller’s repeated stating that such-and-such “felt almost sexual” and similar phrasing; it just seemed to me like she was pressing the point sometimes.

    Thanks for coming by to talk about the book some more – I really liked your review of it too!

    Anna – She’s definitely an author worth checking out. I hope you will :-).

    Ti – I think Family Pictures is her second or third novel; I read it back in the early ’90’s, but I don’t think it would be that hard to find a copy. Parts of that one have stuck with me for years.

    Kathy (Bermudaonion) – I’m not about to spoil that :-).

    B&B's Mommy – I hope you’ll give it another shot. It started out a little slowly for me, too, but it was well worth sticking with.

    Kori – She’s on my “must-read authors” list too, and has been for years. I hope you get the chance to read this one soon!

  5. Wendy (Literary Feline) – I’m not sure I’d say she was a sympathetic character, exactly, but I did like her, and I would recommend the book.

  6. Emily – In the novel, Meri has motherless-daughter issues, which is part of what draws her toward Delia.

    If you liked your first exposure to Sue Miller, perhaps this will be your next. I think you’ll still like her; she gets rather close to the “edge of the page” sometimes herself :-).

  7. SmallWorld – Thanks for a review I could link to :-)! As I recall, we did have some similar impressions of the book.