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Pickle Me This

January 18, 2008

The Senator's Wife by Sue Miller

There was a moment whilst reading The Senator’s Wife by Sue Miller when I just knew I was not only reading a readable novel, but also a very good one. When Delia Naughton steps into her front hall and is greeted her husband Tom, who calls her “Darling”. What Tom can’t see, however, is their daughter’s friend, already halfway up the stairs, but Delia can. Delia sees the girl turn at Tom’s voice, her face lit up and expectant. “And she knew, she felt it as an undeniable certainty, that something had already begun between them.”

This is the sort of moment upon which stories hang. This is plot, this is life. For it is too easy for revelation to come via google search, a conversation overheard, mis-answered cellphone calls, etc. Very rarely do we find an old tin box hidden under some bed, containing all the answers. Revelation more often does come in a glance, in a breeze, the turn of a head and the expression on one’s face. The sort of thing you can hardly put your finger on, and certainly cannot explain.

And so by such a moment I become confident of this story’s construction. This story about women’s lives, wifedom and motherhood, and that it could be told well. As it is. This is the story of a house, which is always a conceit I enjoy. Two halves of a house, actually, with two families. Meri and Nathan are newly married, new in town. Next door is Delia Naughton, “The Senator’s Wife”, who has been living apart from her husband for some time. A contrast then, between two couples. One together, and another apart (but not wholly), one newlywed and another with a history behind them. Meri finds herself unexpectedly pregnant, and Delia has wisdom to impart from her own years of motherhood. Having missed out on a strong maternal relationship herself, Meri is drawn to her new neighbour. And as Nathan and Meri struggle to adjust to one another and to parenthood, Delia is forced to make her own changes when her husband suffers from a stroke and she must bring him home again to care for him.

There are many fine things going on in this novel, and not just the moments. Here is not just an exercise in contrasts, as Meri and Nathan are so much characters in themselves. First, that Nathan is a nice guy, which is hard to write (for it’s far easier to plot a book with a slimeball). Second, they’re a bit older than average newlyweds. Meri is thirty-seven with her own history behind her, with a job, with experience. Moreover she’s a bit goofy, which you don’t see much with protagonist. As a character she is entirely whole.

It’s a subtle novel, but solid– what you’d imagine of a book about houses. And more than just an exploration of family and marriage, both of which are dealt with beautifully. The Senator’s Wife is not just a rumination, but a story, and with a fine plot to guide it, and an ending that will take you by surprise.

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