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On Sale: January 08, 2008
Pages: 320 | ISBN: 978-0-307-26872-3
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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—wife of the two-term liberal senator Tom Naughton—is Meri's new neighbor in the adjacent New England town house. Tom's chronic infidelity has been an open secret in Washington circles, but despite the complexity of their relationship, the bond between them remains strong. Soon Delia and Meri find themselves leading strangely parallel lives, as they both reckon with the contours and mysteries of marriage: one refined and abraded by years of complicated intimacy, the other barely begun. With precision and a rich vitality, Sue Miller—beloved and bestselling author of While I Was Gone—brings us a highly charged, superlative novel about marriage and forgiveness.


Chapter One: Meri, June 1993

From her perch in the middle of the backseat, Meri surveys the two in front—her husband, Nathan, and Sheila, the real estate agent. There is something generally vulnerable about the back of the head and the neck, she thinks. Nathan, for instance, looks a bit schoolboyish and sad from the back—his ears in particular—probably because of the haircut he had before they started out on this house-hunting trip.

They've been at it for two days. 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. She finds she likes the sense of distance. She likes the view she gets of their faces as they turn to speak to each other or to her—the profiles, the three-quarter angles. She feels she's learning something new about Nathan, watching him this way, hearing him ask his real estate questions. He has so many! Questions about heating costs, about taxes, about the age of appliances, about insulation and school districts.

Why hasn't she thought about any of this?

Because. Because the other reason she's sitting in back is that she can't bring herself to care very deeply about the house—whatever house it's going to be. The whole thing is Nathan's idea. Meri has sometimes spoken of it to him jokingly as "your big, fat idea," and, as it will turn out, that's apt: the house will cost much more than they'd planned on spending.

But even that will have almost nothing to do with her. Nathan's the one with money. Not that he has a lot. But some. He was living penuriously in their midwestern college town when she met him, salting away what he could. He lived penuriously before that in another college town, a saver there too. In the end it has piled up a little bit. But more important, he has a mother willing to give him his "legacy," as she calls it, before her death. She doesn't need it, she has said repeatedly, and he does.

The idea of a parent not only willing, but able, to help you out financially, before or after death, is alien to Meri. A legacy? She will contribute nothing to the purchase of the house—she has nothing, and nothing is coming to her.

None of this means she's unsympathetic to Nathan. She loves him. She understands his impulses and wishes. He was miserable when they met, trapped in the meanest of academic environments, where his brand of scholarship and his popularity with students was looked on with a combination of contempt and envy. To be offered a job at a good college in the East, a job in a department that values the kind of work he does, a tenure-track job, a job with the promise of what might be called real money in these circles—this is a coup, an achievement. An escape. They celebrated the news by going out to dinner in the best restaurant in Coleman—the Italian place—and by spending a good deal of the following weekend in bed.

The house they are planning to buy, whatever house it turns out to be, is supposed to be a further celebration of all this—of Nathan's new luck, of his new place in the world. It's supposed to mark, for him anyway, a great change, a beginning.

For Meri, its meaning is less clear. She's sad to be leaving her life in Coleman and her apartment there. She'll miss her job and the people she works with at the alumni magazine. She'll miss their competitive telling of jokes. She'll miss their long meetings, the meandering conversations that would finally and inevitably come around, in some mysterious way that always surprised all of them, to the topics for articles they might do for the magazine.

And she's just a little worried about her marriage. She knows Nathan is planning a life, a life which the house is part of, that she's not sure she wants to live. She doesn't know whether she can be at home in the place he imagines, in the way he imagines her being. She suspects there's trouble coming. But she feels if they can just hold on to the easy camaraderie and sexual heat of their early days, then they can find a way to keep talking about all this, a way of shaping their marriage to suit them both.

Their first day with Sheila was a waste of time. They had agreed on this in their room at the inn yesterday evening, lying down exhausted and fully clothed on top of the bedspread, not touching. Nathan's hands were folded on his chest, as though he were arranged for viewing at a funeral home. They agreed they would have to raise their upper limit to get anything they really wanted—or Nathan suggested this and Meri went along. To her, everything they'd seen seemed possible. In each cramped little bungalow or shabby row house, while Nathan was getting visibly depressed, she was thinking how, if you just painted the pine paneling white or ripped up the orange carpet, if you took down the heavy layers of curtains and let the light in, the place could be livable. But because she could see Nathan's sorrow, she didn't try to sound hopeful or cheerful about anything. These weren't qualities he seemed to like in her anyway. And back at the inn she didn't even mention any of this. She agreed with him, she bolstered him. She was the one who finally got up from the bed and made the phone call to Sheila—told her they would need to start over with new rules the next day.

Sheila has quickly pulled together a revised list for today's viewings. They've seen three so far. The first one was too far out of town—they both wanted to be able to walk or bike to work. The second one was just ugly, they all agreed over lunch. Fake-brick siding, a tiny dark kitchen. No. The third one, the one they've just come from, was lovely, a Victorian, but also much too big and in need of repairs. The porch actually bounced slightly as they strode across it, and inside Nathan pointed out the water stains on the ceilings and walls, the rotted window frames.

Now Sheila is saying that this next one, the one she's driving them to, is a little out of their range, but she thinks it's so perfect for them that she just wants them to take a peek. She mentions a price that makes Meri flinch in the backseat. She looks quickly at Nathan.

His face is in profile to her as he looks over at Sheila. Meri can see a small, bitter smile move across it. A danger sign, though Sheila doesn't know that. But Meri can sense what's coming. He's about to tell Sheila it's a lot out of their range. He's about to ask her not to waste their time. Maybe he's even about to say that they're tired, that they've seen enough for one day.

But Sheila isn't looking at him. Her small, childish voice rolls on, an innocent and unstoppable flow. Meri thinks of clear, shallow water. "It's a double house, actually," she says. "You know, attached. The other side is owned by that old senator who's retired now. Oh, I bet you know him: what's his name? The famous one, more or less the Kennedy era. He even looked kind of like a Kennedy. Oh, shoot!" She smacks the steering wheel.

Meri watches as Nathan's face changes, as the little smile disappears. He says, "Tom Naughton?"

"That's it!" Sheila says. She turns and smiles at him. "They've owned it forever. I've got no idea how long. Since way before my time."

There's a silence. Nathan turns to look at Meri. She can admire the sculpted line of his cheek, his jaw. "It wouldn't hurt to look, I guess," he says.

"You know me," Meri answers. "Real estate voyeuse." She tries to make her voice sound ridiculously sexy, she shimmies her shoulders, and Nathan laughs. That's good. He hasn't laughed, it seems to her, for a few days.

But who's Tom Naughton?

She'll have to look him up.

When she met Nathan, Meri was living alone, in a place she loved—one vast room in an old brick building whose tall, bare windows looked out over the mostly empty main street of what was euphemistically called downtown Coleman. At one time the building had been a factory—harmoniums had been built there—and, factory-like, it had uselessly high ceilings, of pressed tin. In winter, the warm air rose up and sat just under these ceilings, far above Meri's head. Or at least she assumed that's where the warm air went. There was certainly none down where she lived. There, chilly breezes crisscrossed the room, on a stormy winter day sometimes actually stirring the piles of papers stacked everywhere. Meri wore multiple layers of clothes at home through the coldest months of the year, and huge green down booties all day and well into the night. She wore them to bed. She didn't remove them until she had been under the covers for a while and the heat of her body had begun to tent her safely.

It was for this reason, among others, that she was grateful to have met Nathan in the early summer, when, even though it had no cross-ventilation, the apartment stayed cool and airy with the outsize windows thrown open. When she went barefoot at home, loving the feel of the painted wood under her feet. When she wore skimpy dresses that showed off how tall she was, how strongly built. When you could lie naked in comfort.

They had known each other for only a month, lying naked in comfort for much of that time, when he moved in with her. They had married a month after that. They had been married for ten months when they flew to Williston to spend this long weekend looking at houses they might live in.

When Sheila pulls up at the curb, Nathan sits quietly for a moment before getting out, looking up the walk. As though in reverence, Meri thinks. She follows his gaze. There's a for-sale sign planted in the deep lawn, and behind it rise the two attached brick town houses, built at the turn of the twentieth century, probably, with lots of white carved-stone trim around the windows and doors—curlicues and animal shapes. There's even a small couchant lion at the top of the stone steps up to the porch.

They get out and go up the long walk under a wide oak tree. Moss is growing between the bricks under their feet. Sheila is talking to Nathan about the number of bathrooms, about the kitchen, which they would probably eventually want to renovate. Meri walks behind them, fishing a cigarette—one of the four cigarettes she allows herself daily—from her purse. "I'll come in in a minute," she says as Sheila works the front door with her key.

They don't answer. Nathan disapproves of her smoking. Well, who wouldn't? But the sign of this is that he pretends not to notice it, that he not only ignores her when she's doing it, but any reference to it. It's as though the cigarette is an invisibility device, she thinks. Presto!

Meri watches them step inside the house. She hears Nathan say, "Zowie." She finds her matches. She listens as they talk for a moment—he's asking Sheila about the age of the house; something about the floors—and then their echoing footsteps and voices move back into the house's depths.

She sits down on the stone balustrade that encircles the large, rectangular porch. It's cool and damp under her buttocks. The porch is divided—Senator Naughton's half, their half—by a shorter balustrade projecting out from the wall between the two heavy wooden front doors. The lion rests on top of this, his mouth slightly open, as if he's just seen something that surprises him. She inhales deeply.

She inhales deeply and thinks about sex with Nathan. There's been a drought, the last week or so, and she misses it. She misses him, she thinks. He has gone away from her, into thinking about his future.

Their future, she corrects herself.

From her perch, she can see up the long, broad street where nothing is happening, though somewhere children are yelling. The branches of the trees arch over from each side of the street and meet in the middle. The houses all sit back behind their imposing front yards. The Senator Naughton house is in a series of single and double houses that sit closer together at what must once have been seen as the less-fashionable end of the street. She turns and looks again into the opened doorway. She can see all the way through it, into a room full of light at the back of the house. The kitchen, no doubt. The kitchen they will want to renovate.

Meri thinks about this word: renovate. She's not sure she wants to be a person who renovates anything. Renovating is different from painting the paneling or pulling up the orange wall-to-wall carpeting.

Different how?

Different because it takes money. That's the problem, isn't it? She's stepping into a bourgeois life, and she's being a little testy about it. Is it because the money isn't hers? couldn't be hers?

She doesn't know. She inhales again, relishing the acrid taste.

Sex is what did it, of course. They couldn't have been a more unlikely pair, more different. Nathan has what Meri has come to think of as credentials: a distinguished, or at least a solidly reputable, academic for a father—long deceased—a mother who has a silver tea service, inherited from her parents. Who used this tea service on the occasion when she met Meri. A mother who could say, when Meri admired it, "Oh, it's just plate," as though that made it less remarkable.

In spite of herself and the choices she's made in her own life, Meri has a nearly inborn respect for all this, probably as a result of watching too much television in the seventies. When she and her sister played with their Barbies, Meri's Ken doll was always a doctor or a lawyer. Even then, even at eight or nine, she was a sucker for a notion of security derived from prime time. Meri's sister, Lou, was contemptuous. Her Ken was a movie star, or a cowboy, or a guy who raced motorcycles. Meri's Ken, she said, was a dult. This was a word they both used well into their teens. It was born of Meri's childhood misunderstanding of the word adult, which she heard as two words, article and noun. Lou had co-opted it to simultaneously point at, and offer judgment on, the world of the grown-ups. Dults, almost all of them.

From the Hardcover edition.
Sue Miller|Author Q&A

About Sue Miller

Sue Miller - The Senator's Wife

Photo © Elena Seibert

Sue Miller is the best-selling author of the novels The Lake Shore Limited, 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 Cambridge.

Author Q&A

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?
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?
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?
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?
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?
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?
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?
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?
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.



“Tasteful, elegant, sensuous. . . . Insightful, complex.” —The Boston Globe“Miller plays her hand in a masterly fashion.” —The New York Times Book Review “A leisurely, meticulously constructed tale that builds inevitably, even relentlessly, to a striking, life-changing denouement. . . . An impressive addition to Miller's list of novels.” —Chicago Tribune“Complex and beautifully drawn . . . with her keen eye and precise prose, Ms. Miller expertly conveys the passage of time and the evolution of emotions, giving readers the sense of lives fully lived.” —The Wall Street Journal“I closed The Senator’s Wife and instantly wished there was someone around with whom to discuss the Jodi Picoult like ending.” —USA Today
Reader's Guide|About the Book|Author Biography|Discussion Questions|Suggestions

About the Book

“Tasteful, elegant, sensuous. . . . Insightful, complex.” —The Boston Globe

The introduction, questions, and suggestions for further reading that follow are designed to stimulate your group's discussion of Sue Miller's mesmerizing new novel, The Senator's Wife.

About the Guide

Meri is thirty-seven, newly married, and newly pregnant, standing on the cusp of her life as a wife and mother, and recognizing with some terror the gap between reality and expectation. Delia, her neighbor in the adjoining New England town house, is twice Meri's age, the wife of Tom Naughton, a venerated former U.S. senator—a man whose habitual infidelities are an open secret in Washington. As dissimilar as they may appear, these two women find themselves leading strangely parallel lives, reckoning with the contours and mysteries of marriage, one refined and abraded by years of complicated intimacy, the other barely begun.

As Sue Miller did in her contemporary classics The Good Mother and While I Was Gone, she takes us once again deep into the private lives of women. And once again, what she discovers is both explosive and transcendent.

About the Author

Sue Miller is the bestselling author of the novels 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.

Discussion Guides

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?

Suggested Readings

Kate Chopin, The Awakening; Julia Glass, Three Junes; Kent Haruf, Plainsong; Barbara Kingsolver, The Bean Trees; Anne Lamott, Operating Instructions; D. H. Lawrence, Lady Chatterley's Lover.

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