Excerpted from The Senator's Wife by Sue Miller. Copyright © 2008 by Sue Miller. Excerpted by permission of Vintage, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Sue Miller is the best-selling author of the novels The Senator’s Wife, Lost in the Forest, The World Below, While I Was Gone, The Distinguished Guest, For Love, Family Pictures, and The Good Mother; the story collection Inventing the Abbotts; and the memoir The Story of My Father. She lives in Boston, Massachusetts.
Q: THE SENATOR’S WIFE tells the story of two unconventional women whose lives become intertwined when the younger woman, Meri, moves with her husband to the townhouse adjacent to the one owned by the wife of a New England senator. Was there one event in particular that sparked the idea for THE SENATOR’S WIFE?
A: As is usually the case with me -- and I suspect with most writers -- it isn't one event which gets a book going, but a concatenation of things, a "perfect storm", as it were. In this case, I started with an interest in the idea of someone taking in an estranged spouse who was ill, as I'd heard of its happening with several acquaintances. I was also interested in an exploration of sexual jealousy, prompted in part by experience, and in part by the kind of prurient fascination I think we have all shared with the Bill-Hillary-Monica situation; but also with earlier political scandals, like Ted Kennedy and the Chappaquidick disaster, after which Joan Kennedy, to general amazement, campaigned with him; or Gary Hart's misadventure, which didn't end his marriage. The terms of those marriages, the adjustments, the pain implicit in them fascinated me. I'd also just read a wonderful book of poetry about marriage and jealousy by Ann Carson, called THE BEAUTY OF THE HUSBAND, and this was wildly in my thoughts.
In pondering how to work with this fictionally, I realized I wanted a way of looking at it from the outside as well as from within -- another point of view besides Delia's. I invented a neighbor, Meri, as fascinated as I was by it all. But in addition, as I discovered while creating her and her life, she offered what I thought of as an interesting contrast -- a very different kind of marriage from Delia's, a different set of terms governing it.
Q: The viewpoint in THE SENATOR’S WIFE flips between Delia and Meri, and the timeline bounces around a bit. How did you handle this as a writer?
A: Like the timeline, I bounced around a bit. I wrote some of it in the order in which you read it, but there were parts that I added after the fact, and there was a good deal of rearranging of the elements as I worked, and then as I revised too. I was aware of not wanting the predictability of one chapter for Delia, then one chapter for Meri. I wanted to work more organically, as I thought of it -- with the book's own emotional logic dictating the order of things.
Q: You never name the New England state where Delia and Meri live, but the town has a very vivid sense of place. What is your relationship with New England and why did you choose not to name the state?
A: I thought if I named the state, it would interfere with the suspension of disbelief for readers -- that people would remember who had actually been the senator from that state during the years Tom was supposed to be serving, and this would make entering the book on its own terms perhaps a little more difficult.
I've lived in New England for almost fifty years now, though I grew up in Chicago. But my parents were both from New England families, and because my father was an academic, he had long summers off. We always came east for those months -- months in which New England, particularly to the child that I was, is paradisiacal. I especially love small towns in New England, though I'm not sure I'd be able to live in one full time. I'm a pretty committed urban creature.
Q: You present a very brave and honest portrait of motherhood through Meri. Being a mother, was this hard for you to write?
A: Being a mother has never made anything hard for me to write because I've never written anything directly autobiographical about that experience, and I don't intend to. But it has offered me insight into feelings and events that I've been thrilled, always, to make use of fictionally.
Q: Both Delia and Meri have much internal dialogue—often negative—about their own bodies. Why did you choose to include those thoughts?
A: Delia's negative thoughts have primarily to do with getting old, and it seemed important to me that the reader feel her age as she feels it -- that the reader be intensely aware of her as a person who is elderly.Meri, in fact, loves her body -- or has loved it. It's because her body is changing with pregnancy that she has negative thoughts about it. I don't think this is inevitable for pregnant women -- some feel more beautiful, sexier -- but it seemed to me it might be true for Meri, whose pregnancy is not entirely welcome, and who has been so pleased with her strength, her physicality.
Q: THE SENATOR’S WIFE explores many types of relationships: friendship, parenthood, and marriage. Which relationship do you see as the most tenuous?
A: I suspect the degree of tenuousness of all of these kinds of relationships depends almost entirely on who is in them, but I do think for most people being a parent is the least questionable of the three -- there's a kind of absolute commitment required in that situation that makes the connection very powerful. Although then there are the teenage years ...
Q: How do you research the specifics of what you write about? For instance, how did you know how a political campaign is run?
A: I read, primarily. For THE SENATOR'S WIFE, I read a couple of books about and by Daniel Patrick Moynihan, because both his age and his politics seemed to me close to what I imagined for Tom. And then by chance I have a wonderful record of multiple life stories in my father's college alumni records -- a history of the doings of all the members of his class as they report it, collected every five years. I have about seven of these tomes, the first written at graduation, the last fifty years later. For THE SENATOR'S WIFE, I read the stories in them of the lives of several of his classmates who were involved in politics; I read accounts of what they did in the war, what they had to say about their marriages, about their children, about the way their lives turned and changed. In addition I read literature about strokes and their sequellae. I read WHAT TO EXPECT WHEN YOU'RE EXPECTING in order to understand Meri's experience of pregnancy.
But I also purchased a home pregnancy testing kit, which seemed to unnerve the drugstore checkout clerk. And later used it. I went to Emily Dickinson's home for the experience of being led through an historic residence by a docent. I went to a conference on aphasia in Boston. I watched film interviews with a number of people who suffer in quite different ways with the disease. I walked around the likely streets in Paris and chose a place for Delia to live. And I used experiences from my own life. Aprison writing class I taught. Labor. Being prepped for radio interviews, and then being on the air. House hunting. Shopping at a farmers' market in New England in the fall. Everything else.
Q: Some of the novel is told through the epistolary form. Do you have a special interest in the art of letter writing?
A: I think I have the interest in letter writing that a lot of people my age do. It was utterly central to my life and my family's life as I grew up and became a young woman; and it is of diminishing importance now, which seems to me a great loss. I feel as though I've come to an understanding of my family's life in part through its epistolary history -- not just from what the letters say, but from thinking about what seems true in the letters, what seems false, and why that might have been. And then there are the horrible letters home I wrote, which my mother saved, and which forced me to consider myself at various ages -- again, what was true, what was false, and why I variously told the truth or distorted it.
From the Hardcover edition.
1. Have you read any of Sue Miller's other works? What shared themes, if any, do you see in her new novel?
2. In the second paragraph of Chapter One, Miller says, “Meri has occupied the backseat the whole time—at first because that's just how it happened when they all got in the car, and then by choice.” What does this tell us about Meri? Did your first impression of her turn out to be accurate?
3. Discuss the title. Why do you think Miller called her novel The Senator's Wife when Meri's story gets equal time?
4. How does Meri's childhood, and specifically her relationship with her own mother, influence her relationship with Delia?
5. Reread the top of page 32, Delia's first encounter with Nathan. What is her perception of him and his attitude towards Meri? Do you think she's right?
6. Several times in the novel, it's suggested that moving to a new home equals an opportunity for new beginnings. Which move proves to be most important to Delia?
7. Meri seems to take great pleasure in keeping secrets. Why do you think that is? How does it help her, and how does it harm her? Ultimately, is it good for her marriage?
8. On page 61 Meri tells Nathan about the effect Delia has on her. Discuss the idea of aperçus—why do you think Meri is so shaken by Delia's statements? Have you ever known someone who has had a similar effect on you?
9. One major theme in the novel is the conflict between public and private lives. Which character is most comfortable living in public? Least comfortable? In what ways do Meri, Delia, Nathan, and Tom each have both private and public aspects?
10. At times there are parallels between Meri and Tom, Delia and Nathan, and at other times the pairings are rearranged. Who do you think is most similar? Most unlike each other? Who would you most like to spend time with, if these were real people?
11. Delia reads Anne Apthorp's letters, and the results are beneficial and illuminating. What is the result when Meri reads the Naughtons' correspondence?
12. What purpose does the fifty-page flashback (beginning on page 91) serve? What do we learn about these characters that we might not know otherwise?
13. Meri has a difficult time accepting her pregnancy and motherhood. What does this say about her? Are we led to dislike her, or feel compassionate towards her? How do you think Miller feels about the character she created?
14. Delia's relationships with her grown children are quite varied. Why do you think she wound up with three such different results? What kind of mother was she?
15. Discuss Delia and Tom's relationship. Who has the most power, and how is it wielded? What would you have done in Delia's place at these key junctures: When she found out about Carolee; when Tom had his stroke; when she walked in on Tom and Meri?
16. Nursing in public is challenging for many women, even today. On page 229, Meri does it in 1994, with heartbreaking results. Have you ever nursed in public? What do you think of the practice? How does this tie in to Miller's public vs. private themes?
17. On page 305, Tom says to Meri, “Mea culpa!” Is he really taking the blame? Does he deserve it?
18. Reflecting upon the events of 1994, Meri thinks on page 305, “In the end she has come to think it was Tom who changed her more, who gave her something, something that she didn't know she needed.” What did Tom give her? Is she right about him changing her more?
19. Reread the last paragraph of the novel. Did Meri really act out of love? Why do you think she did it? What price did she pay, if any?