Nathan and Meri are a thirty-something couple who move to Wiliston, a New England college town, so that Nathan can take up a new academic post. From the outset it's obvious that they are an unusual pairing; Nathan is from a wealthy middle class family while Meri's origins are more humble, and with her marriage and Nathan's job, she finds herself in a social position she never dreamed of. It's more than just their backgrounds, though that undoubtedly explains a lot of the differences between them; perhaps because of his wisdom and confidence Meri finds herself submitting to Nathan and though he does not overtly dominate her, his opinion holds more weight than hers, so much so that when their realtor comes up with a property that's way outside their budget, it's Nathan that commits them to spending more.
It's only when Nathan learns that the house next belongs to former Senator Tom Naughton that the house suddenly interests him. As a political scientist Nathan is thrilled by the idea of living next door to Naughton, a hero of his and a proponent of Great Society liberalism; while Nathan and the realtor are touring the house, Meri is on the stoop chatting to Delia, Tom's wife. Meri, too, is thrilled by the prospect of the Naughtons as neighbours but for different reasons; having lost her mother to breast cancer Meri seems to be searching for a maternal figure and she subconsciously sees in Delia Naughton someone capable of filling the role. Disappointment lies in store for both Nathan and Meri. Nathan is disappointed to learn that Tom does not live next door all the time and only visits from time to time, and Delia cannot be the woman that Meri wants her to be because she has worries of her own.
Delia lives alone in the house and has done for years. Although they'd never divorced, Tom and Delia separated years ago because of Tom's repeated infidelity; for several years Delia had turned a blind eye to Tom's affairs but when at Christmas one year he started an affair with his daughter's colleague who had joined the family for the holidays, Delia could take no more and fled to Paris where she fell into a comforting routine, learning the language and creating a simple but happy life for herself. Even then the marriage was not over; Tom had asked Delia to stand by him, giving the impression of a happy, loving couple while he campaigned for re-election to office and Delia had agreed. Though the two never properly lived together after that, they continued a sexual relationship and did not divorce. Their children, who had urged Delia to divorce Tom, didn't know the true extend of their parent's relationship. This is the position in which Meri and Nathan find Delia when they become neighbours. Then a phone-call from a female friend of Tom's calls Delia back to the States from Paris. Tom returns to Delia in the most dramatic fashion and for the first time in years, Delia has the upper hand in the marriage but her pleasure is short-lived as she is betrayed in a surprising and shocking way.
I'd not heard of Sue Miller before I read 'The Senator's Wife' but I understand that she's a fairly prolific author with legions of devoted fans; on the evidence of her story-telling abilities I can see why because this is a really gripping story with carefully plotted twists and turns. She creates complex characters (sometimes baffingly complex) that seem superfically familiar, giving them authentic voices and even when they behave in ways most of us would find unacceptable, Miller does not 'take sides'. The fact that the narration is very even handed is perhaps part of the reason that the climax of the story is so shocking. There is something of the the soap opera in all this that I think explains why, in spite of some really negative elements, this novel has been so well received; for me, though, that means characters that say or do things (and in the case of Meri, undergo a complete change of personality at the close of the story) that are completely out of character, to suit the needs of the story.
That I felt compelled to finish 'The Senator's Wife' is testament to Miller's story-telling ability because the novel is a triumph of story-telling over bizarre characterisation and excessively and unnecessarily descriptive prose. Delia is the most irritatingly affected character I've come across in a long time yet I couldn't help thinking that her fussiness about things like her home was at odds with her pragmatic attitude to other parts of her life. In one particularly cloying passage Delia stops off on her way home from her voluntary work (she's a guide in a museum housed in the former home of an obscure female writer now deceased) to buy the stuff to put together a welcome basket (her home must be full of baskets just waiting to be filled with gifts) for her new neighbours: "In Kitchen Arts she buys two inexpensive champagne flutes and some blue-checked dishcloths. She walks the four doors down to the specialty food shop. There she buys a small circle of goat cheese, several pates, a baguette....' look, it goes on ad nauseam and it's utterly cringeworthy.
This tendency on Miller's part to repeatedly include the most mundane details doesn't help read the read know the characters any better, nor does it add anything to the story: at first I thought that this fine detail must be somehow important, that it it must be an essential part of what's going to happen next that reqires an itemised list of what Delia puts in a salad but, it never did matter.
The only character I found it possible to like even a little bit was Tom Naughton, the villain of the piece but the story is told from the points of view of the two women so we never really get under Tom's skin. Nathan had the potential to be interesting but the opportunity was squandered. I didn't really 'get' the relationship between Nathan and Meri. They've married after a whirlwind romance and at the rather later than usual age of thirty-eight, Meri becomes pregnant just after the couple move in next door to Delia. They are supposed to be madly in love but it just doesn't ring true. Meri has this childlike, naive nature while Nathan is the practical sensible one. Yet Nathan makes the decision to upsticks and move, and to buy a house, without consulting Meri and there's always this sense that Meri needs Nathan more than he needs, or really wants, her.
It crossed my mind that maybe I was supposed to understand that Nathan is the sort of man who likes the idea of having his partner reliant on him, yet there's nothing really to explain this odd marriage. On the other hand, there are times when Miller emphasises the painfully obvious. There are clear parallels between the two marriages but it's not necessary for them to be signposted quite so much; there are a couple of dialogues between Meri and Delia which seem to have no other purpose than to tell readers what is patently clear.
At times (frequently if i'm honest), 'The Senator's Wife' is uncomfortable reading: there's an agonising childbirth scene, some very unerotic oldie sex and, strangely the most voyeuristic and unpleasant of all, a needless case of snooping which left me feeling complicit and grubby.
Did I like anything about this novel? Not really, I have to conclude. I was drawn to it because of my interest in New England and the US political system and while the setting is vaguely sketched, I learned nothing of the role of a senator. The backdrop of Paris is rather better and I felt that Miller did capture the essence of the city and for once, the minutiae of every day life were justifably included.
What is so frustrating about 'The Senator's Wife' is that Sue Miller poses a meaty question then fails to go anywhere near answering it. Why exactly does Delia stay loyal to this cad of a man? As Tom's infidelities are catalogued and Delia continually stands by her man, I felt that the fog would eventually lift and the reason would be revealed but this doesn't happen and this omission makes for an ultimately unsatisfying read.
My wife purchased this book on one of those 3 for 2 offers at Waterstone's. All be it its clealy a chick-lit book, I decided to give it a read whilst on holiday and found the the story quite compelling.
The story centres around two women, Delia and Meri. Meri and her husband Nathan move from their small apartment to a large rural house. They find that their neighbours are the elderly Delia and her husband, the charismatic ex-senator Tom.
The two women become friends with Meri and Nathan being invited over for regular meals but Tom's continual absence becomes suspicious. During a scheduled holiday to Paris, Delia asks Meri to look after the house and she uses this oppotunity to poke around and happens upon some letters which begin to explain Tom's absence.
As Meri continues to look after Delia's house, her interest in the subject grows and she immerses herself deeper into finding out the truth about thier relationship. She discovers that Tom had a number of affairs during his term in office and throughout his and Delia's marriage. The letters suggest that Delia forgave her husband but that they never lived as man and wife again.
Meri keeps all of this a secret from her huband Nathan and subsequently falls pregnant. She struggles with this initially as she has recently started a succesful job herself and felt she had finally made a place for herself in their new community.
Meri gives birth to a son, Asa, and the diffculties of being a new mother start to take their toll. Delia returns from Paris at this point, and shows a lot of interest in Asa. Meri is delighted when Delia reassures her with regards to her abilities as a parent.
Meri and Nathan later find out that the reason for Delia's return is that Tom has suffered a stroke and now requires constant care. After some rehab, Tom moves back into Delia's house and she feels both excited and reivigorated at the prospect of looking after her wayward husband. Tom is now half the man he was as his speech has been affected by the stroke but Delia soon sees the old Tom reappearing.
At a party that both Meri and Delia attend, Delia offers Meri the proposition of looking after Asa allowing for Meri and Nathan to have some much needed time together as their relationship has suffered from the birth. In return Delia asks Meri to keep Tom company a couple of days a week whilst she completes her voluntary work.
As per the agreement, Meri visits Tom a couple of days a week and begins to read to him about political and social events which he enjoys. Meri takes Asa along with her and when he starts to cry, Meri realises that Asa needs to be fed which she does in front of Tom. As opposed to feeling awkward at the situation, Meri feels empowered, as Tom appears to enjoy the interaction.
This situation continues and almost becomes a routine of Meri reading to Tom and feeding Asa. She realises that Tom appreciates her visits and this makes her feel good about herself and her body again after the pregnancy. However, things come to a head they are unexpectedly interrupted one day.
I found this to be quite a good book and very easy to read. The characters are interesting and grow throughout the story. My only disappointment was the ending as it rather ebbed out as opposed to having any sort of powerful conclusion.
Sue Miller is a best-selling US author - this was the first of her novels that I picked up on a whim and read - I was pleasantly surprised to discover a new favourite author.
Meri and Nathan meet relatively late in life, with a quick marriage and move to New England - a move which Meri is unsure about, feeling as though being a wife and mother is about to wipe out her entire previous existence, and slightly resentful at giving up her beloved, albeit impractical, apartment. Intrigue lies ahead, however - the house in New England neighbours the wife of an eminent senator (a great hero of Meri's husband, Nathan). Strangely the senator is never around, but despite their differences, Meri and his wife (the elegant and intriguing Delia) become friends and allies - but this leads to consequences none of them could have predicted.
Sue Miller is clearly an accomplished author. On the surface this novel begins as a story of happy newlyweds, adjusting to their married life, but content and looking forward to their lives together. However, a sense of impending doom hangs over the narrative from the outset and the reader never feels entirely comfortable with the chain of events. As Meri and Delia become closer, and Meri becomes more and more curious about her unexplained distance from the senator, Meri is unable to prevent herself from unearthing secrets she wishes she'd left buried. The action gradually picks up pace, leading to a shocking climax which leaves the reader reeling - whilst at the same time knowing that this was what the story was building to from the outset.