The Senator's Wife

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Overview

Once again Sue Miller takes us deep into the private lives of women with this mesmerizing portrait of two marriages exposed in all their shame and imperfection, and in their obdurate, unyielding love.

Meri is newly married, pregnant, and standing on the cusp of her life as a wife and mother, recognizing with some terror the gap between reality and expectation. Delia Naughton–wife of the two-term liberal senator Tom Naughton–is Meri’s new neighbor in the adjacent New England town...

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Overview

Once again Sue Miller takes us deep into the private lives of women with this mesmerizing portrait of two marriages exposed in all their shame and imperfection, and in their obdurate, unyielding love.

Meri is newly married, pregnant, and standing on the cusp of her life as a wife and mother, recognizing with some terror the gap between reality and expectation. Delia Naughton–wife of the two-term liberal senator Tom Naughton–is Meri’s new neighbor in the adjacent New England town house. Delia’s husband’s chronic infidelity has been an open secret in Washington circles, but despite the complexity of their relationship, the bond between them remains strong. What keeps people together, even in the midst of profound betrayal? How can a journey imperiled by, and sometimes indistinguishable from, compromise and disappointment culminate in healing and grace? Delia and Meri find themselves leading strangely parallel lives, both reckoning with the contours and mysteries of marriage, one refined and abraded by years of complicated intimacy, the other barely begun.

Here are all the things for which Sue Miller has always been beloved–the complexity of experience precisely rendered, the richness of character and emotion, the superb economy of style–fused with an utterly engrossing story.

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Editorial Reviews

Judith Warner
I won't reveal how the final betrayal occurs, but will just say that in this particular moment Miller plays her hand in a masterly fashion. Shock, deceit, desire and despair come together at once in a way that feels simply like fate. In that remarkable bit of novelistic choreography, I saw in Miller what her fans have always seen: a clever storyteller with a penchant for the unexpected and a talent for depicting the bizarre borderline acts, the unfortunate boundary crossings and the regrettable instances of excessive self-indulgence that can destroy a world in a blink.
—The New York Times
Library Journal

Meri, short for Meribeth, is going through some major changes: she just got married, moved to another state, and bought a new home. When she and her husband, Nathan, move into their New England townhouse, they learn that their neighbor, Delia Naughton, is the wife of the vaunted Sen. Tom Naughton. Delia is at the other end of the spectrum from Meri: her children are grown, and, for her, life is slowing down. Yet the two women hit it off and quickly become friends. Having their first child together teaches Meri and Nathan the nuances of married life; Meri, meanwhile, uncovers the mysteries of Delia and Tom's relationship. An intervening tragedy then causes a savage rift between Meri and Delia. Miller (The Good Mother) has written an extremely powerful novel of women, marriage, and friendship. The characters are fascinating, the story engrossing, and the novel incredibly readable. Highly recommended for all collections. [See Prepub Alert, LJ9/1/07.]
—Robin Nesbitt

Kirkus Reviews
How loyalty and betrayal occur within marriage and within friendship are the central but not the only questions raised in this quietly provocative domestic novel from Miller (Lost in the Forest, 2005, etc.). In 1993, 37-year-old Meri and her new husband Nathan buy half a duplex in the Connecticut college town where he teaches history. Although Nathan and she have definite sexual chemistry, Meri is uncertain about the lasting power of their love. She is painfully aware of their different backgrounds, in particular his mother's continuing affection in contrast to her own lack of maternal love growing up. Their neighbor in the attached house is Delia, the wife of former Senator Tom Naughton. Meri is drawn to Delia as a mother figure, but Delia, while friendly, is slightly aloof. While house-sitting for Delia, newly pregnant Meri reads a stash of Delia's letters from Tom delineating the Naughtons' private marital history. Tom's infidelities made marriage impossible, especially after his fling with their daughter's roommate, but Delia and he have continued to rendezvous since their public separation. Shortly after Meri gives birth to her son, Tom suffers a debilitating stroke and Delia brings him back to Connecticut to care for him. Delia comments that she and Meri are living parallel lives, tending a baby and an invalid husband. Actually, the ever-insecure Meri feels alienated from Nathan, unloving toward the baby and generally ugly and unhappy. Delia, meanwhile, is thrilled to have her husband completely to herself at last. But even semi-paralyzed, Tom carries on a sexually charged flirtation with Meri that destroys Delia's temporary Eden. Years later, happily ensconced in her family lifewith Nathan and their three sons, Meri has found the capacity for love that Delia represented, but her remorse over betraying Delia remains limited. Despite an overly deliberate pace, Miller brings into stark yet uplifting relief the limitations of morality when confronted with love. First printing of 150,000
From the Publisher
“Tasteful, elegant, sensuous. . . . Insightful, complex.” —The Boston Globe“Miller plays her hand in a masterly fashion.” —The New York Times Book Review “A leisurely, meticulously constructed tale that builds inevitably, even relentlessly, to a striking, life-changing denouement. . . . An impressive addition to Miller's list of novels.” —Chicago Tribune“Complex and beautifully drawn . . . with her keen eye and precise prose, Ms. Miller expertly conveys the passage of time and the evolution of emotions, giving readers the sense of lives fully lived.” —The Wall Street Journal“I closed The Senator’s Wife and instantly wished there was someone around with whom to discuss the Jodi Picoult like ending.” —USA Today
The Barnes & Noble Review
In her seven previous novels, Sue Miller has demonstrated the distinction between being a dependable storyteller and a predictable one. The Senator's Wife provides further affirmation that she belongs in the former category, a lyrical writer who consistently delivers page-turning domestic dramas that unfold quiet surprises as she peels back the layers of artifice and reserve that shield her complex middle-class women.

In The Senator's Wife, we encounter two female protagonists at very different points in their married lives: Meri, a new wife and soon-to-be mother, and her neighbor, Delia Naughton, a septuagenarian who has not lived with her husband, a former senator, since the 1970s. The two women grapple with the grief of emotionally and physically elusive spouses while attempting to forge a friendship.

Meri, a features writer at a radio station, is just beginning her post-collegiate life at age 37 and is now on the fast track to domesticity. As the novel begins, she's relinquished everything to be with her new husband, Nathan, whom she married just two months into their relationship. He takes her out of her native Midwest to the fictional New England college town of Williston, where he has accepted a tenure-track position as a historian. Nathan hungrily scouts for real estate, excitedly going from house to house. But Meri "can't bring herself to care very deeply about...whatever house it's going to be." The daughter of a hard-drinking trucker and a fiercely reserved and reluctant mother, she is unfamiliar with the conventions of bourgeois life, and further alienates herself from it by, in her words, acting as a "real estate voyeuse." She sees "Nathan...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."

Nathan settles on a double townhouse, in part because he is eager to get to know Tom Naughton, a retired progressive senator who lives in the other half of the house. But once Nathan and Meri move in, they realize that Tom rarely visits his Williston residence. Instead, they meet his wife, the prickly, worldly wise Delia, who befriends the couple. The architecture of the conjoined houses lends them an inverse relationship to each other, like a mirror; cleverly, it has the same effect on the couples that reside within.

Friendless and motherless, Meri yearns to connect with Delia, who is friendly but resistant to her overtures. A mother of three adult children, she isn't especially eager to get drawn into Meri's mother-daughter transference fantasies, be they conscious or unconscious. Meri has, understandably, become hyper-emotional, and not only because of hormones: She feels dejected as Nathan seems repulsed by her growing body and expresses frustration at the "inconvenience" of the timing of her pregnancy, which coincides with the deadline for his book. Her new boss has no qualms about telling her that they'd have never hired her if they'd known she had plans to start a family so soon after accepting the job. Delia is the only person to express excitement at the news of a baby, but Meri wants to cleave to her like a life raft, and her intensifying neediness is more than the older woman can bear.

Meri's pregnancy fuels her obsession with the story of Delia's clandestine and unusual marital arrangement. Delia can appreciate her hunger for this knowledge: she volunteers as an archivist and tour guide of the house of an obscure 19th-century New England writer, Anne Apthorp, whose estranged marriage to an itinerant, philandering preacher resonates with her. But while Delia believes the desire to learn history is primal -- "it's that first history we're really curious about" -- she fiercely guards the truth about her marriage from Meri and Nathan, as well as from her own children.

The charismatic, seductive Tom Naughton, like Meri, hails from working-class roots, prides himself on being self-made, and married into a family that intimidates him. And while he and Meri both resist domestic life, Tom acts out in a way that humiliates his family: He has a reputation for marital infidelity that nearly eclipses his legacy as a lawmaker.

Meri eventually discovers the reason for Tom's elusiveness through cryptic conversations with Delia, and some sleuthing of her own. While house-sitting for Delia she secretly and shamefully reads through their years of correspondence. Among other things, she discovers details about Tom's that have consequences for his marriage and his relationship with his children.

As her pregnancy enters its third trimester, Meri worries she is not cut out for motherhood or marriage, and she actually envies Delia's ability to feel hurt by Tom's innumerable infidelities. But what few people know is that over the years, Delia has used her heartbreak as a bargaining tool and now believes she has changed the power dynamic between herself and Tom and heightened the intimacy in her marriage. When Tom is debilitated by a stroke, the Naughtons play out a romantic drama straight out of Jane Eyre. Delia has never been happier -- until she finally grasps the full extent of who her husband is.

Only years later does Meri realize she and Nathan lack the history she bore witness to in the Naughton letters. Delia craved Tom's need, which she thought was synonymous with love; his feelings for her were genuine, but it was impossible for her to compete with his narcissism. Meri once wondered if romance relied on tradition; through her, we see it can, if not always, be something that develops over time. Sadly, Delia's heart-wrenching love story lends a different moral, that loving a narcissist is a doomed affair.

Inexplicably, Miller chose to set her story in the early 1990s against the backdrop of the less interesting of the two Bill Clinton scandals: his affair with Gennifer Flowers, which bears less of a resemblance to Tom's own marital deal breaker than the Monica Lewinsky scandal. But it's Miller's only real misstep, and it's a minor quibble. On the whole, she has crafted an affecting, psychologically probing story about yearning and betrayal. --Kera Bolonik

Kera Bolonik's writing has appeared in numerous publications, including The New York Times, Salon.com, Slate, the Forward, and Bookforum.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780739358511
  • Publisher: Random House Audio Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 1/8/2008
  • Format: CD
  • Edition description: Unabridged, 9 CDs, 11 hrs. 30 min.
  • Product dimensions: 5.08 (w) x 6.00 (h) x 1.17 (d)

Meet the Author

Sue Miller is the bestselling author of the novels Lost in the Forest, The World Below, While I Was Gone, The Distinguished Guest, For Love, Family Pictures, and The Good Mother; the story collection Inventing the Abbotts; and the memoir The Story of My Father. She lives in Boston, Massachusetts.

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Read an Excerpt

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 how?

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.

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Introduction

“Tasteful, elegant, sensuous. . . . Insightful, complex.” —The Boston Globe

The introduction, questions, and suggestions for further reading that follow are designed to stimulate your group's discussion of Sue Miller's mesmerizing new novel, The Senator's Wife.

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Foreword

1. Have you read any of Sue Miller's other works? What shared themes, if any, do you see in her new novel?

2. In the second paragraph of Chapter One, Miller says, “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.” What does this tell us about Meri? Did your first impression of her turn out to be accurate?

3. Discuss the title. Why do you think Miller called her novel The Senator's Wife when Meri's story gets equal time?

4. How does Meri's childhood, and specifically her relationship with her own mother, influence her relationship with Delia?

5. Reread the top of page 32, Delia's first encounter with Nathan. What is her perception of him and his attitude towards Meri? Do you think she's right?

6. Several times in the novel, it's suggested that moving to a new home equals an opportunity for new beginnings. Which move proves to be most important to Delia?

7. Meri seems to take great pleasure in keeping secrets. Why do you think that is? How does it help her, and how does it harm her? Ultimately, is it good for her marriage?

8. On page 61 Meri tells Nathan about the effect Delia has on her. Discuss the idea of aperçus—why do you think Meri is so shaken by Delia's statements? Have you ever known someone who has had a similar effect on you?

9. One major theme in the novel is the conflict between public and private lives. Which character is most comfortable living in public? Least comfortable? In what ways do Meri, Delia, Nathan, and Tom each have both private and public aspects?

10. At times there areparallels between Meri and Tom, Delia and Nathan, and at other times the pairings are rearranged. Who do you think is most similar? Most unlike each other? Who would you most like to spend time with, if these were real people?

11. Delia reads Anne Apthorp's letters, and the results are beneficial and illuminating. What is the result when Meri reads the Naughtons' correspondence?

12. What purpose does the fifty-page flashback (beginning on page 91) serve? What do we learn about these characters that we might not know otherwise?

13. Meri has a difficult time accepting her pregnancy and motherhood. What does this say about her? Are we led to dislike her, or feel compassionate towards her? How do you think Miller feels about the character she created?

14. Delia's relationships with her grown children are quite varied. Why do you think she wound up with three such different results? What kind of mother was she?

15. Discuss Delia and Tom's relationship. Who has the most power, and how is it wielded? What would you have done in Delia's place at these key junctures: When she found out about Carolee; when Tom had his stroke; when she walked in on Tom and Meri?

16. Nursing in public is challenging for many women, even today. On page 229, Meri does it in 1994, with heartbreaking results. Have you ever nursed in public? What do you think of the practice? How does this tie in to Miller's public vs. private themes?

17. On page 305, Tom says to Meri, “Mea culpa!” Is he really taking the blame? Does he deserve it?

18. Reflecting upon the events of 1994, Meri thinks on page 305, “In the end she has come to think it was Tom who changed her more, who gave her something, something that she didn't know she needed.” What did Tom give her? Is she right about him changing her more?

19. Reread the last paragraph of the novel. Did Meri really act out of love? Why do you think she did it? What price did she pay, if any?

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Reading Group Guide

1. Have you read any of Sue Miller's other works? What shared themes, if any, do you see in her new novel?

2. In the second paragraph of Chapter One, Miller says, “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.” What does this tell us about Meri? Did your first impression of her turn out to be accurate?

3. Discuss the title. Why do you think Miller called her novel The Senator's Wife when Meri's story gets equal time?

4. How does Meri's childhood, and specifically her relationship with her own mother, influence her relationship with Delia?

5. Reread the top of page 32, Delia's first encounter with Nathan. What is her perception of him and his attitude towards Meri? Do you think she's right?

6. Several times in the novel, it's suggested that moving to a new home equals an opportunity for new beginnings. Which move proves to be most important to Delia?

7. Meri seems to take great pleasure in keeping secrets. Why do you think that is? How does it help her, and how does it harm her? Ultimately, is it good for her marriage?

8. On page 61 Meri tells Nathan about the effect Delia has on her. Discuss the idea of aperçus—why do you think Meri is so shaken by Delia's statements? Have you ever known someone who has had a similar effect on you?

9. One major theme in the novel is the conflict between public and private lives. Which character is most comfortable living in public? Least comfortable? In what ways do Meri, Delia, Nathan, and Tom each have both private and public aspects?

10. At times there are parallels between Meri and Tom, Delia and Nathan, and at other times the pairings are rearranged. Who do you think is most similar? Most unlike each other? Who would you most like to spend time with, if these were real people?

11. Delia reads Anne Apthorp's letters, and the results are beneficial and illuminating. What is the result when Meri reads the Naughtons' correspondence?

12. What purpose does the fifty-page flashback (beginning on page 91) serve? What do we learn about these characters that we might not know otherwise?

13. Meri has a difficult time accepting her pregnancy and motherhood. What does this say about her? Are we led to dislike her, or feel compassionate towards her? How do you think Miller feels about the character she created?

14. Delia's relationships with her grown children are quite varied. Why do you think she wound up with three such different results? What kind of mother was she?

15. Discuss Delia and Tom's relationship. Who has the most power, and how is it wielded? What would you have done in Delia's place at these key junctures: When she found out about Carolee; when Tom had his stroke; when she walked in on Tom and Meri?

16. Nursing in public is challenging for many women, even today. On page 229, Meri does it in 1994, with heartbreaking results. Have you ever nursed in public? What do you think of the practice? How does this tie in to Miller's public vs. private themes?

17. On page 305, Tom says to Meri, “Mea culpa!” Is he really taking the blame? Does he deserve it?

18. Reflecting upon the events of 1994, Meri thinks on page 305, “In the end she has come to think it was Tom who changed her more, who gave her something, something that she didn't know she needed.” What did Tom give her? Is she right about him changing her more?

19. Reread the last paragraph of the novel. Did Meri really act out of love? Why do you think she did it? What price did she pay, if any?

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Sort by: Showing 1 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted January 31, 2008

    Skip this depressing tale of futility.

    If you want to endure the final destruction of a longstanding, however unconventional love affair - for love, we're finally told - by a confused, stricken old man and a silly, mindless woman, then this could be for you. The damage here to an old couple is so shattering that no amount of sugar-coating at the book's end by the perpetrator can right it.

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