The Senator’s Wife, by Sue Miller

Sue Miller is one of those writers you can trust.  I’m hard-pressed to think of any author, except Anne Tyler, with whom I can feel more confident that when I pick up a novel I am going to get a good, well-written story with some thoughtful insight into character. 

The Senator’s Wife alternates between the perspective of two women: Delia, the title character, whose long marriage to a U.S. Senator has been marked by sexual infidelity (on the senator’s part) but a kind of emotional fidelity: the two have been separated for years but have never really stopped thinking of themselves as married to each other, and they maintain a kind of connection even in their estrangement.  Delia’s new next-door neighbour, Meri, is a young woman, recently married and feeling out of her depth in her marriage and in the social circles her new husband has moved her into.  Meri’s friendship with the older woman next door provides a source of strength and insight as she moves through her first pregnancy, the birth of her child, and months of post-partum depression.

But nothing is as simple as it seems — in a Sue Miller novel, or in life.  Meri’s and Delia’s friendship, and the uneasy truce between Delia and her charming, cheating husband Tom, are both changed irrevocably when Tom suffers a stroke and Delia appoints herself as his caregiver. Can a marriage that has survived as much as Delia’s and Tom’s finally come to a breaking point — and if so, what will cause it to break? Meanwhile, what about the marriage next door — Meri’s and Nathan’s attempt to forge a mutual life despite their differences? Everything comes to a climax in a shattering scene in which Meri makes a decision that, years later, she’s still able to justify what she did.  I thought her action was totally inappropriate, and yet I still sympathized with her as a character — which I think is a tribute to how real the author has managed to make Meri.  Like a friend in real life, you might disapprove of what she does yet still care about her.

I was disappointed that the epilogue gave me a glimpse into Meri’s future life from her point of view but not into Delia’s — I wanted her perspective on the events of the story to balance Meri’s.  But that was my only quibble about a thoroughly well-written and enjoyable novel.

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