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Sue Miller: The Senator’s Wife

The title says that the book is about the senator’s wife and, to a great extent, it is. But is also about Meri, journalist, mother and the wife of Nathan, a university lecturer in history and politics. And it is Meri, who at the end, recognises that it is the senator more than the senator’s wife who had most influenced her, even though she had wanted to be close to the wife. The story starts in June 1993 (all the chapters have dates). Meri has married Nathan in her mid-thirties, a first marriage for both. She had worked for her alumni magazine in a mid-Western town called Coleman, where she had met Nathan. They got married and had now come East, to a New England town called Williston, when Nathan got offered a better position at the university there. The story starts on their arrival.

This book is primarily about marriage and the relationship between married couples, though it certainly touches on other topics. When they arrive in Williston, Meri and Nathan go house-hunting. Indeed, the book opens with their house-hunting trip with the real estate agent. The opening scene sets the picture for the whole book. Meri is in the back seat, observing Nathan and Sheila, the real estate agent. She likes the sense of distance. Throughout the book, we will have the sense that Meri, though she loves Nathan and they remain more or less equals, feels somehow removed from him. He has his world – his work, his baseball, the books he is writing – and she does not feel entirely part of that world or of him. It is brought home after they first try to have sex after the birth of their first son. Because of a scar, it is very painful for Meri. Both, in their own way, had wanted to have sex before but neither, for their own reasons, had been able to manage it. Their separateness is brought out by this failure.

The other key part of the opening scene is Meri thinking that she does not care very deeply about getting a house. Nathan is not only very keen, he plies Sheila with all sorts of technical questions, about which Meri had never thought. But, as in many marriages, the man sets the agenda and the woman goes along with it but it remains, as she says, his big, fat idea. The house they finally choose is his idea, not because it is a fantastic house, though it seems nice enough, but because the next door neighbour is Tom Naughton, US Senator, active in the Great Society programmes, and one of Nathan’s great heroes. Once they move in, it soon becomes apparent that Senator Naughton is not around. He had resigned as a senator, possibly for”personal reasons” and Meri and Nathan wonder if the couple are separated or divorced.

Meri soon gets to meet Delia, the eponymous senator’s wife, the model of what one might expect the respected wife of a respected senator to be. She is friendly, helpful, polite but also a private woman. Miller alternates Meri’s and Delia’s story, so that we learn Delia’s story well before Meri and Nathan do (which Meri learns by poking around Delia’s private letters and both learn from Nancy, the Naughtons’ daughter). Tom Naughton had been a charismatic senator but like many politicians – Miller makes the overt comparison with Ted Kennedy – he was liberal in his politic and liberal in his affections, having a series of affairs. Delia discovers one, he confesses to it and other past transgressions and promises not to sin again. But he does. Eventually, they agree to separate but they remain married and also remain friends. Indeed, they continue to have sex when they meet. She helps him with his last re-election campaign. While she is somewhat forgiving of his affairs, the three children are less so, and this causes estrangement in the family.

Meanwhile Meri makes friends with Delia, visiting her, looking after the house when Delia goes off to France, as she does twice a year, where she has a flat. Meri clearly admires and looks up to Delia, though, likes others, is somewhat confused about Delia’s reaction to her husband’s infidelities. Miller throws us a couple of plot twists but these do not detract from the essential story nor from the essential theme of how does a woman survive inside a marriage with a man she loves but who is controlling or unfaithful. Miller makes an interesting comparison – Jane Eyre. She makes the point that Jane only finds a satisfactory relationship with Mr. Rochester when he is weakened (after being injured in the fire, set by his wife) and he becomes dependent on her. Is this the only way to a happy marriage for a woman? It is an intriguing proposition.

Publishing history

First published 2008 by Vintage