LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:
Sue Miller writes about real life - about the interior lives of people trying to understand their relationships, their own possibilities, finding their limits, coping with them. Her novel "While I Was Gone" explored the fragility of even very happy families. It was what we come to call an Oprah book. Her newest novel is called "The Senator's Wife." She joins us from member station WBUR in Boston.
Sue Miller, welcome to the program.
Ms. SUE MILLER (Author, "The Senator's Wife"): Thank you very much. I'm glad to be here.
WERTHEIMER: Now, this new book is also about love and marriage, I think. Is that how you see it?
Ms. MILLER: Pretty much so, yeah. I think, I mean, I hope to - it's sort of a little bit about the wider world but about love and marriages; it's experienced by two very different women of quite different ages in this novel.
WERTHEIMER: The book covers something like 40 years of a relationship - the senator's wife, Delia Naughton, and her very long marriage. And then the young couple in the mix are their neighbors. They are both very interested in the people who own the house next door - the famous Senator Naughton and his wife Delia. So there are four characters. Now, what - why cast it that way?
Ms. MILLER: I think I wanted to sort of look at two very different kinds of marriages. I mean, they're very different in multiple ways. The marriage between the senator and his wife has dissolved in a certain sense. Although they stayed married, they don't live together. It dissolved over his infidelities. But there's a sort of a deep and abiding loyalty they both feel to each other in their relationship has gone on. And the marriage between the young couple is just beginning. But it's beginning on very different kind of term - sort of more modern terms, I guess you would say in a certain sense. So I wanted to sort of look at the differences and the parallel between these two marriages.
WERTHEIMER: Now, the central event of the book, which you referred to, is that the senator is an unfaithful husband who basically breaks his wife's heart.
Ms. MILLER: Uh-hmm. I mean, he breaks it more than once. But then he breaks it in a way that she really doesn't feel she can tolerate living with him anymore, even though she campaigns with him after that and tries to make sure that he has what he wants in terms of his professional life.
WERTHEIMER: You do move around in time in this book. The book starts in the early '90s. And then it jumps backward more than 20 years, forward more than 10 years. Explain why you did that.
Ms. MILLER: Well, the book begins with Meri and her meeting Delia and her feelings about Delia. Meri is the younger woman who lives next door to Delia Naughton, the senator's wife. She's tremendously interested in her. And also, Delia is reminded of what her life has been by the arrival next door of this very young couple who are in love with each other, whom she can hear making love from time to time. And so in a sense, it's a sort of personal flashback on her part. It's for her to remember her life with her husband on this side of the wall.
WERTHEIMER: There's a chapter in the book which is about the Christmas of 1971. And it's in Delia's mind - the memory here. And I'd like you to read a passage of which deal, I think, with the changes and the compromises and their marriage and their efforts to survive the senator's affairs.
Ms. MILLER: (Reading) They got through it. But after that, life in Washington was more difficult for Delia. She was aware of her discomfort when she moved around socially. She never knew who else might have known about the affair - the affairs. And she never knew what those people who did know about them might be thinking of her. She felt a sense of strain though nothing changed on the surface. Though she was just as publically charming as ever - was seen as often at the required political social events. But when they've bought the house - this house - and Delia began to have a life and friends in Williston, she realized how much more at ease she felt here. She suppose most of it was just getting away with Tom from the sexually charged atmosphere of Washington, where a handsome man with power - a man who talked easily, a man who was charming and chivalric around women could always find companionship, or more accurately, had to actively choose not to have companionship, if that's what he wanted. Now, leaning into Tom, she said, it's so good to have you here.
WERTHEIMER: Obviously, there are some echoes of other public figures there. I guess, most notably, the Clintons whose marriage survived a very public infidelity. And you explore a relationship which outsiders absolutely do not understand.
Ms. MILLER: Uh-hmm.
WERTHEIMER: But which seems to be based on something that is strong and is shared.
Ms. MILLER: Yeah. I've just been very interested - I mean, I sort of have grown up with the great shift in the notion of a line being drawn between private life and public life. I mean, I was in college when Kennedy was our president. And, of course, didn't know, along with everyone else or most everyone else, anything about his private life until well after his death.
And then, you know, sort of Edward Kennedy is the senator from Massachusetts. And I'm a citizen in Massachusetts. And the sort of way in which his marriage continued for some time after Chappaquiddick, his wife actually campaigned with him, Gary Hart. And then I think Clinton really turning the corner in a certain way. But a whole through of question of what claim the public has upon you.
WERTHEIMER: Right around that time from the passage you just read, this marriage changes again from, you know, from the admiring young wife of the ambitious young lawyer to the young congressman to the unfaithful husband and so forth. Is that what we ultimately are reading about here of the evolution of a relationship - a constantly changing relationship that is a long marriage?
Ms. MILLER: In some sense or another. I mean, it's an extreme version of it. But I think, you know, it's a sort of a wish to somehow find a way to stay together. Actually Delia says something at one point to Meri just in conversation over dinner - that marriage is, in a sense, you know, trying to find a way to get out of it while you stay in it. That in order to make a marriage work, that's what you need. I mean, as people sort of said about the Clintons, their marriage must have a very odd shape. And whatever it is, it is. But this is Delia's version of it.
WERTHEIMER: But even so, even though some of those takes place on a national stage, essentially, you're still doing in this book what you've done in other books. And that is work on a kind of a small canvass.
Ms. MILLER: Mm-hmm.
WERTHEIMER: A close examination of a marriage.
Ms. MILLER: Mm-hmm. Well, two marriages, essentially.
WERTHEIMER: Two marriages.
Ms. MILLER: Yes.
WERTHEIMER: And what the two women in the book think about each other's marriages - their own marriage?
Ms. MILLER: Yeah. It's very much. It's sort of, in some ways, tells conscious discussion of marriage on both of their parts. Although there are other - lots of other things that happened. But there are these, to me, very interesting sort of ways of looking at the two of them and how they each try to accomplish marriage, How they each tried to sort of make it last.
WERTHEIMER: Sue Miller's new book is called "The Senator's Wife."
Sue Miller, thank you very much for coming in and talking about the book with us today.
WERTHEIMER: Oh, I enjoyed it very much.
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WERTHEIMER: And this is WEEKEND EDITION.
Scott Simon returns next week. I'm Linda Wertheimer.
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