Marriage is a funny thing, isn’t it? I’ve been married for nearly 32 years – not as long as Delia Naughton, the title character of The Senator’s Wife, Sue Miller’s latest novel – but almost. Long enough, at any rate, to understand exactly what she meant by these words:
She’d thought he was immortal, that he’d always be there. Or at least as long as she was. She’d always thought that there was time, ample time ahead, to work things out, to find a way to be together again at some point. It must still be that she thought of them as belonging together. That he was her destiny.
Destiny – something that was meant to be, pre-ordained by some higher power. Perhaps every young couple in love sees themselves that way at some point in their relationship. Certainly Delia felt that from the beginning about Tom, the poor young lawyer who had scrabbled his way through school and was determined to change the world. She proudly hitched herself to his star, followed him as he climbed through the turbulent political times of the 60’s and 70’s, coming to power in an era of war and corruption in government, an era not so unlike our own. She played the “good wife,” the hostess, the perfect political asset, in spite of Tom’s numerous infidelities.
The Senator’s Wife is Delia’s story – but it’s also Meri’s story, the woman who moves into the other half of Delia’s duplex. Meri and Nathan have just commenced their life journey as a couple, and as Meri becomes more deeply embroiled in Delia’s life the two women’s stories begin to move along parallel lines. Meri finds herself enthralled with Delia’s life -present and past-and attaches herself to the older woman in a way that becomes unhealthy and even dangerous.
She wanted Delia to change her. She had sought Delia out, she had thought she could learn from her. It always seemed to Meri that she was about to understand something large and important about how to be in the world from Delia.
In an earlier post, I quoted my friend Barbara’s impression about this novel. By the end, she was “just so mad at every character,” she said, virtually tossing the book at me as if daring me to read it. And I can see why. There’s a part of me that wants to grab Delia by the shoulders and shake her, rattle that fascination for Tom Naughton right out of her head-and her loins. Because even after years of infidelity, of living apart and leading virtually separate lives, she’s drawn to him like a moth to flame. He burns her every time, and yet she still relishes those rare moments when they come together, a weekend here and there when they meet and rekindle the passion that still exists between them.
And a woman of her age, too, I found myself thinking, compressing my lips in disapproval.
But what’s wrong with a 70 year old woman who still desires her husband? Is that what makes us angry? Or is it that a 70 year old woman still desires a husband who has cheated on her, who has treated her badly even as he professes to still love her best in all the world?
And then there’s Meri, whose behavior (of which I will not reveal the specifics) cannot, in the end, be justified as anything except pure selfishness, no matter how much one would like to excuse her because of her background, her insecurity, her postpartum depression. No matter that she becomes “transformed,” “recharged,” “lighter in her life” because of it. I remember a similar reaction to Anna, The Good Motherof Miller’s first novel. Miller’s characters have a tendency to become senseless over sex, and, though it makes me feel prudish to admit it, I find myself irritated with them for their shallow, hedonistic behaviors. Perhaps it says something about my own character – that I’m reluctant to accept the power a physical relationship can have.
In that same post I referred to earlier, I mentioned an interview with Sue Miller where she spoke about the way her writing focuses on people’s ability to change (or not) and what happens to them because of it. That idea is certainly a major theme in this novel. Neither Delia nor Tom can change their behaviors or their feelings for each other.
And with all this, when she saw him in the lobby of the hotel in New York, what she felt was simply joy. He was Tom. He was so himself, so unchanged. So beautiful to her. Perhaps they both felt it simultaneously, the sense of all that was familiar and inalterably beloved, no matter what happened between them. She wept then. She wept when he first held her, she wept when they made love.
Perhaps that’s the gift (or the curse) of long years of marriage, the wonderful and terrible intertwining of lives that cannot be undone, cannot be changed. Certainly that’s the gift Meri wants for her relationship with Nathan, the stability she never had before and barely dares hope to achieve now.
The novel brings all these longings and desires to a very interesting conclusion, prodding the reader to re-think their attitudes about marriage and relationships. The Senator’s Wife is a complex and engrossing novel with rich and complicated characters, a novel well worth reading.
Even if it does make you a little angry.
by Sue Miller
published 2008, by Alfred Knopf