Sue Miller Reads from 'The Senator's Wife'
The Preparation Behind the Book
The Models for the Senator and His Wife
Having Books Made into Movies
More from Sue Miller
Book Tour is a Web feature and podcast. Each week, we present leading authors of fiction and nonfiction as they read from and discuss their work.
Since publishing her first novel, The Good Mother, more than two decades ago, Sue Miller has become one of the most celebrated chroniclers of family, marriage and friendship. In her new book, The Senator's Wife, she returns to what one reviewer calls Miller's "perennial theme [of] intimate betrayals." The book revolves around the marriages of two women who live side by side in a double New England townhouse, where the architecture is only one of the story's mirror images.
Miller is the author of nine works of fiction, including the bestselling While I Was Gone and Family Pictures. The Good Mother and her short story collection Inventing the Abbots were both made into movies. It's a process Miller says she doesn't like.
"As a writer," she says, "you imagine that changing one word will change the meaning of things. The idea of everyone participating in the structure of this film ... drove me crazy."
In 2003, she published her only book of nonfiction, a memoir about taking care of her father, who suffered from Alzheimer's. In its review, Publishers Weekly said that readers "need only have parents of their own to appreciate this testimony's dignity and grace." More recently, Miller was the guest editor of Best New American Voices 2007, a collection of works by the nation's emerging writing talents.
Miller says that she's drawn to writing about "tumult," adding, "the family in the last quarter century seems to me to be among the most fascinating social or economic inventions — more than business or real estate ... more than the church or the law or the hospital. It is, of course, open to and impinged on by all of those."
This reading of The Senator's Wife took place in January of 2008 at the Politics and Prose bookstore in Washington, D.C.
The Senator's Wife
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Book Exceprt: 'The Senator's Wife'
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 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.
Excerpted from The Senator's Wife by Sue Miller Copyright © 2008 by Sue Miller. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.