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The Senator's Wife by Sue Miller

Paula Marantz Cohen
The Philadelphia Inquirer (MCT)

With echoes of the Clinton marriage, Miller's latest explores changing lives, emotional truths.

The Senator's Wife

Publisher: Knopf
ISBN: 9780307264206
Author: Sue Miller
Price: $24.95
Length: 305
Formats: Hardcover
US publication date: 2008-01

About halfway through Sue Miller's latest novel, The Senator's Wife, I began to think that this masterful storyteller had lost her touch. The writing had grown mechanical, there was too much explanation of events, and the characters were irritating me. Miller always treads a fine line -- creating vulnerable female characters who risk tipping over into simple victims. I feared they had tipped. Then, 50 pages on, things righted themselves. It is rare for a novel to end stronger than it begins, but The Senator's Wife does. It hits its stride midway, builds in power and resonance, and arrives at a wrenching but deeply satisfying conclusion.

Most of the story is set during 1993 and 1994, the early period of Bill Clinton's presidency. In an interview, Miller admits that Clinton's later adulterous affair was a germ for the novel. And indeed, one can't help but think while reading it about how the current presidential candidate, Hillary Rodham Clinton, suffered at the time, and how her form of coping may have compared with that of the characters in this novel.

The title character, Delia Naughton, is a woman in her 70s whose estranged husband, former Sen. Tom Naughton, was a popular figure of the liberal '60s -- a kind of Ted Kennedy, in more ways than one. Delia lives alone in one side of an attached house in a New England university town. The other main character, Meri Fowler, is in her 30s and newly married. She and her husband, Nathan, a recent hire in the political science department at the nearby university, move into the other side of the house.

The two women are both complements and mirrors to each other. Delia had been the ideal political wife. She had devoted herself uncomplainingly to her husband's career, staying alone with the children for long periods, then traveling and campaigning tirelessly on his behalf when he needed her -- only to learn one day that he had been unfaithful and to realize that he would continue to be so. Angry and humiliated, she nonetheless could not sever her ties to him. When we meet her as the novel begins, she is living in an arrangement that has gone on for 20 years: She remains married, sees her husband occasionally for companionship and even sex, but lives most of the time on her own.

Meri has none of Delia's domestic talent or dignified reticence. She is a messy, rather gauche sort of person. But her gifts are modern ones: She can do things -- she has a career as a writer and researcher for a radio show; she is comfortable with her body and has a spontaneous irreverence that makes her funny and forceful in certain contexts. These differences notwithstanding, Meri and Delia are both needy, insecure women. Delia continues to love her husband and cling to her marriage even though his behavior fails to change. Meri, the product of a poor background and a neglectful mother, submits to being casually ignored by her more polished, academic husband. Her feelings of insecurity only increase after she becomes pregnant and must quit her job, and as her body ceases to be under her control.

When Meri gives birth, and Delia's husband suffers a stroke, both women become caregivers, but with different attitudes toward the role. Meri is overwhelmed by new motherhood; she feels less equipped and less desirable than ever. Delia, on the other hand, is strangely empowered as her once charismatic, philandering husband becomes completely dependent on her.

Miller strains too hard to put these pieces in place, yet once she does, she is able to manipulate them impressively -- to show the weird sacrifices that love can inspire and the sly turns that jealousy and insecurity can induce. I began the book feeling that I didn't like either Delia or Meri very much. By the end, liking them became less important than sympathizing with them. In a cataclysmic, and truly surprising, event at the end, both characters' behavior, though disturbing, is comprehensible.

I can't say the same for Miller's male characters. She draws them as an assemblage of physical attributes and tics that are meant to be charming and lovable even when their actions are thoughtless, even cruel. It's as though they were deprived of the capacity to be sensitive to other people. I suspect Miller depicts them this way to make her female characters' pain less subject to analysis or judgment. For if a man can't help being thoughtless, a woman can't hold him responsible for hurting her or blame herself for eliciting his actions; she can only suffer. Significantly, the female character who refuses this view, Delia's daughter Nancy, is represented as hard, prematurely old, and unmarried.

Despite the bleakness -- and reductiveness -- that informs this notion of male-female relationship, the book contains its share of emotional truths and is, in the end, more uplifting than otherwise. A tragic outcome on one front is countered and, in a way, canceled, by an affirmative one on another. Perhaps the deepest insight that the novel delivers is that one doesn't know what will happen with people -- how things will work out between them. This pertains to the two marriages in the novel, and it's been the surprise of the Clinton marriage. The lesson: There's reason for trepidation in even the best of times, and for hope in even the worst.


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