I can't decide whether this book is amazingly insightful or one extended cliche.
I do have a weakness for Sue Miller. She's the best of the "women's writers" genre that includes Judi Picoult, Anita Shreve, Alice Hoffman and, lately, Barbara Delinsky. It's a genre that's on the cusp of "serious fiction" (whatever that is) and at its best tackles topical issues from a woman's perspective. All fine and good.
Sue Miller specializes in exploring the world of "what was she thinking?" or more often, "what in the name of God was this woman thinking? Is she brain damaged or something?" She's very good at creating believable female characters who make apocalyptically bad choices. Miller does this without coddling her characters and with a prose style that propels the story along while seeming to linger over the daily details.
The Senator's Wife is clearly inspired by several political wives. Joan Kennedy, Jackie Kennedy, Lee Hart and Hillary Clinton. Delia Naughton, the title character, is probably closer to Joan Kennedy in specifics. Married to an Irish politician in the 1950s and 60s, she learns of his affairs but resolves to forgive him until another affair, too public and devastating to her whole family. She continues to stand by him politically but they lead largely separate lives.
Enter next door neighbors Meri and Nathan I'm convinced Miller decided to spell "Mary" as "Meri" so it would be one letter closer to "mess" because that's what she is. A complete mess. A newly married journalist who is terrified of being defined by her husband with a marriage that seems more defined by sex than friendship. Meri is needy. She knows that her life has really been a series of aimless moves that have the appearance of a clear path. She quickly becomes as fascinated by Delia Naughton as her professor husband is by the mere idea of Senator Naughton. Without giving too much away, Meri passes the line from intense interest into creepy stalker pretty quickly. Meri falls apart when she gets pregnant, falls more apart once the baby is born and keeps falling.
Contrast this with Delia. Her life is defined by her relationship with her husband, despite her seemingly successful attempts to create her own life. She is cool, dignified, has an apartment in Paris, has wine and pate for dinner and makes a great gift basket. Delia is also the master of the answer that is accurate without revealing anything. You get the feeling Delia is tired of defending or explaining her relationship with the Senator. She loves him but she can't put up with his betrayals anymore. Her actions baffle her children. Why does Delia campaign for her husband after his particularly appalling betrayal? Because she believes in him politically. Because she holds out some hope for reconciliation? Because she wants him in her debt? Because she wants to hold onto her public dignity? She can't give him up entirely and she's convinced herself they've worked out a life that suits them. Until the Senator has a massive stroke.
The story peaks, or hits rock bottom depending on your taste, with a scene between the Senator, Meri and her sleeping newborn and a late entrance by Delia. There's no getting around that what Meri does is selfish at best, twisted and delusional at worst. Miller tries but I never felt like Meri's actions "made sense" even in her nutty brain. Do you really want to spent time with a character whose actions make you nauseous?
This is the dilemma. Part of me thinks Miller is too good a writer not to know when she's creating a character readers will yearn to visit physical violence upon. Part of me also thinks that Miller thinks she's saying something deep about sexuality and married love. She's not. She's doing a bang up job of showing what goes on in side the mind of the woman in your neighborhood who just can't get her shit together, though.
Not that we're much wiser as to why Delia does what she does. Maybe that's s as it should be since Delia herself doesn't fully understand her actions. Not in a chick lit "Gosh I don't know WHY I did that way" but in the way of a mature woman acting on torrent of emotional and rational spurs. She's confused in the way any one would be confused at finding that the rules one subscribes to and the bargains one has made are suddenly all void. Delia convinces herself she's given up hope that her husband with come home to her and be faithful. But when the chance presents itself, she gives in again.
I could get all philosophical and wonder if Meri doesn't subconsciously betray Delia because Delia is a surrogate for Meri's own emotionally absent mother. Well, maybe, but still, keep your blouse buttoned already.