THE SENATOR'S WIFE. By Sue Miller. Knopf. 306 pages. $24.95
With The Senator's Wife, Sue Miller is once again in familiar territory - the world of women, married or otherwise, and how they deal with the various slings and arrows that come zinging right at them. The author of The Good Wife, The World Below, and While I Was Gone, Miller maps the geography of her female characters' lives with the precision and delicacy of a skilled cartographer. We may recognize the landscape but she excels in revealing the small points, the unknown specifics of the setting we're entering.
The Senator's Wife, with its elderly, spidery writing on the cover, tells the stories of two women whose lives intersect when one moves into a double house with a very thin, shared wall and an elderly neighbor on the other side. It's 1993-'94, and yes, the characters occasionally discuss Bill Clinton. But by setting her story before the whole Monica/impeachment debacle, Miller steps around what might have become a too-obvious parallel.
Meri, the younger woman, has moved, somewhat reluctantly, to a New England town when her husband, Nathan, accepts a professorial position at the local college. Meri's childhood was difficult and marred by poverty. She's foundered through early adulthood, managing a "scratched-together life" writing and editing for a college alumni magazine. Now 36, she's not keen on the move - she'll have to find some sort of job in the new town - and buying a house is just one more daunting social and financial change that her recent marriage has brought.
The house does have a famous occupant on its other side. Delia Naughton, wife of former senator Tom Naughton, "the famous one he even looked kind of like a Kennedy," their real estate agent declares, is a "beauty of the handsome, commanding sort." Seventy-five years old, elegant, precise, and charming, Delia is everything Meri is not. Delia's offer of friendship, "makes her feel somehow, blessed. This is what comes of maternal deprivation, she thinks."
Meri soon discovers that the senator does not live in the house and that the older woman leaves each year for an extended winter stay in Paris. During that first absence, when Meri, unexpectedly and unhappily pregnant, agrees to water Delia's plants and collect her mail, she discovers a trove of old letters hidden in the older woman's desk. Tom Naughton had more in common with the Kennedys than just an Irish heritage and good looks; his numerous and often public affairs have wounded his wife and family, none more so than one conducted with his own daughter's best friend. After this betrayal, Delia returned to the double house to live her life alone while Tom remained in Washington. But not divorced. Delia and Tom continued to appear together in public - even after he left the Senate for a lucrative legal career - and reconnected sporadically in private.
The barely moving plot finally lurches into action when Delia, back again in Paris, learns that Tom has had a stroke and will need immediate, intensive rehabilitation. Rebuffing her daughter Nan's attempts to place him in D.C., Delia insists on moving him back to town and eventually into her home. Meri, now toting baby Asa, is "surprised and then impressed with Delia, that she'd won, that she could be so stubborn, so powerful. Meri would have bet on Nancy." But Delia, awash in the possibility of recreating what had been stripped away years ago, points out that they will both be contending with helpless men. "Only instead of sustaining myself," she tells Meri, "as you must do by dreaming of who he'll become, I'll dream of who Tom was, once upon a time."
Wise readers know, however, that once upon a time never really exists, in books or real life. Delia, Tom, Meri, and Asa continue on a collision course that is as predictable as it is sad. The final act is less a crushing betrayal than a moment of impulsive, thoughtless whim whose result is devastating all the same.
Miller builds the tension in the last 50 pages with skill and precision. We know something is going to happen and that it will probably be bad, but exactly what path the participants will take remains shrouded by their cartographer. Then Miller blows the beauty of her simple final sentences by tacking on a wrap-up, fast-forwarded to 2007. It's one of those unnecessary, awkward, "and then this happened, and then that happened" conclusions that have tripped up many writers, notably J.K. Rowling with her cringe-inducing ending to the last Harry Potter book. Rowling at least had an excuse; she didn't want to have to produce yet another "final" book explaining what happened. Miller, or her editor, should have known better.
At 306 pages, The Senator's Wife is average in length. It's not long enough, though, to really flesh out its two main characters. We know almost nothing about the characters' backstories, other than a few introductory sentences. And even the details fall into a well-worn pattern. Poor women are earthy, messy, unorganized, but compelling. Rich women are, well, rich. And elegant, restrained, clever, etc., etc. But what if Meri was slim, patrician, reserved, and stoic about the difficulties of her life? How about a Delia who's short, overweight, expansive, and overly emotional about everything? And why are all the characters, including the almost invisible Nathan, tall? Meri is 5 feet 11 inches. Nathan is four inches taller (and terrifically handsome, natch). Delia is "tall and erect and somehow compelling." Tom is "tall and lanky and still somehow boyish." It's enough to make this vertically-challenged reviewer look forward to the next episode of Little People, Big World.
The Senator's Wife offers a glimpse into a crucial period in the lives of two interesting women. But it's only a glimpse. Meri or Delia are both battered by life but still clever at controlling it. At the end, we still don't know much beyond that, which leaves the reader muttering "why did she (either one) do X?" It's as if Miller sketched out the map of her characters' lives but then left out the important information that would have let us navigate successfully to her intended destination.