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November 12, 2020

Monogamy, by Sue Miller

Sue Miller is one of those ubiquitous American older woman writers I know nothing specific about, occupying the same part of my brain that Anita Shreve does, very 1990s’ Oprah’s Book Club. I read and reviewed her The Senator’s Wife in 2008, early on my book blogging career, although I don’t remember anything about the book or my review, but looking back, I’m proud of the young reviewer who provided the following insight: “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.”

I became interested in her latest novel Monogamy after reading Richard Russo’s review in The New York Times, and I bought the book with my ticket to the Book Drunkard Festival (tonight!). Reading the novel over the last couple of days, and it was one of those books I was disappointed to get to the end of. It was wonderful. Why have I not been reading everything Sue Miller has ever written in the years since The Senator’s Wife? (And why was I waiting for permission from Richard Russo to find her work interesting?)

The novel presents as realism, so real that certain moments are excruciating in that way (it seems) that only real life can be. Misunderstandings, and miscommunications, secrets brought to the surface, words that should never have been said but can’t be taken back. And heartbreak, and heartache, the devastation of grief, the unease of a life’s foundation beginning to crumble.

The ways in which characters are never truly known to each, or—even worse—the inexpressible things we know about the people we love and wish we didn’t.

But in a way, the novel is not realism at all, at least not in a literary sense. Beginning, middle and end. Climax and denouement. Central protagonist and secondary characters. A narrative line you could draw on the page.

When if you started to draw the narrative of Monogamy, the lines would turn to swirls intersecting with swirls, an abstract creation, a web. Strange and dazzling.

At the centre of the web, purportedly, is Graham, a man of large character and appetites, a character whose absence we understand after his sudden death because we’ve been following his point of view intermittently through the first third of book. But the centre shifts as the story proceeds, from character to character—Graham’s first wife, his son and his wife, and Graham’s daughter with his second wife, Annie, and it is is Annie to whom this story mostly belongs. But not entirely—from the other characters, we learn perspectives (including perspectives about Annie herself) that Annie has no idea about. And perhaps it’s the reader who is the centre of the novel after all.

They are recognizable, so many of these moments. “The sort of thing you can hardly put your finger on, and certainly cannot explain.” This is a novel about marriage, and family, and gender, and art-making, and generation gaps, and mother-rage, and friendship, and aging, and widowhood, and independence. About loyalty and betrayal, and love and forgiveness…but never is the story one-dimensional enough to be about just one of these. A many sided object catching the light in different places every time, strange and dazzling, like I said. Like life itself is.

Which is just an illusion, of course. Miller writes about Graham once explaining that the appeal of fiction is that it suggests our lives have shape after all, sequence and consequence, and that there is meaning in the randomness, the unfathomableness. And that this book manages to critique art as life, and then be art as life at once, and my mind is spinning, and what a testament to the novel is that.

2 thoughts on “Monogamy, by Sue Miller”

  1. theresa says:

    I remember reading The Good Mother and not being able to sleep afterwards. Everything so plausible, so possible, and so so sad. I’ve read some of her others as well and will keep an eye out for Monogamy.

    1. Kerry says:

      I will definitely be reading up on her backlist (and not JUST because there are beautiful matching new editions of all her work that I am sort of coveting…)

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