The moving story of a mother and son that touches the deepest concerns about love, art, family, and life
Lily Maynard is proud, chilly, difficult, and has become a famous writer at age seventy-two. Now, stricken with Parkinson's disease and staying with her architect son Alan, Lily must cope with her fading powers as well as with disturbing memories of the events that estranged her from her children and ended her marriage. For Alan, her visit raises old questions about his relationship with her, about the choices he has made in his own life, and about the nature of love, disappointment, and grief. Profound and moving, The Distinguished Guest reveals a family trying to understand the meaning of its life together, while confronting inevitable loss and the vision of an immeasurably altered future.
About the Author
Sue Miller is the bestselling author of While I Was Gone, The Distinguished Guest, For Love, Family Pictures, Inventing the Abbotts, and The Good Mother. She lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Date of Birth:November 29, 1943
Place of Birth:Chicago, Illinois
Education:B.A., Radcliffe College, 1964; M.A.T., Wesleyan U., 1965; Ed.M., Harvard U., 1975; M.A. Boston U., 1980
Read an Excerpt
The first printing of Lily Maynard's book was only five hundred copies, but they were beautiful books, carefully designed and produced, with marbled endpapers, and a woodcut reproduced at the start of each chapter, a church with a narrow spire. Lily loved to hold her book, loved to turn the thick, cream-colored pages slowly, to read her own words, so transformed by the authority--the heaviness, as she felt it--of print, that she was often startled by them, by their power. The book was called The Integrationist: A Spiritual Memoir.
Tabor Press was at that time run by a committee of four women who rotated being chair. As it happened, the woman in charge of the watch on which Lily Maynard's book was published, a thin, energetic person named Betsy Leaming, was also the person in the house most interested in commercial success, and the only one who understood anything about publicity. She sent Lily's book, with a cover letter, to the editors of women's pages for a number of major newspapers in the Midwest. The letter summarized Lily's life, quickly: the cloistered, wealthyMinneapolis background, her forced removal from college by her father after she voted for Roosevelt in the 1932 election, her marriage and transformed life in Chicago with Paul Maynard, a radical young Protestant minister called to an inner-city church. It told of their bitter struggle and eventual divorce over religious and ideological issues, centering on integration and the black power movement; and then, in Lily's own words, "the slow learning about what was left." The letter laid out some of the various angles an interviewer might take with this material. Perhaps best of all, it enclosed a photograph of Lily with her pure-white hair sculpted back into a bun, and the piercing dark eyes. She had been a remarkably handsome younger woman in her unsmiling, sober way, but age had softened her face to a melancholy and gentler beauty.
Lily was a good interview, it turned out, by turns elegant and cantankerous. Quotable. She discovered she liked to talk. She liked the sense of public weight her opinions began to acquire, and this made her yet more quotable. Often as she sat back and made a pronouncement, a nearly mischievous smile would lighten her somber face. Speaking about the appeal Saul Alinsky's radical brand of community organizing held for the Protestant leaders in her Chicago neighborhood, she shook her head and sighed: "Those old church boys were just tired of being thought of as do-gooders. The idea of hanging around with tough guys appealed to them. Alinsky restored their sense of masculinity." On the radicalism of the sixties: "It was mostly a call for street theater, a cheap yearning for more drama in political and public life. Everyone let himself forget that the processes of true change are always long and slow and effortful, and probably for the most part pretty boring."
Orders picked up and Tabor went to press again. Betsy Leaming followed her early letter with a copy of an interview with Lily in the Tribune. There were glowing and positive reviews. There began to be other interviews and more orders. Tabor found itself unable to keep up with the demand. Eventually they sold the contract to a much larger house in New York, which, in essence, published the book anew. This time there were reviews in the daily and Sunday New York Times. Suddenly Lily was invited to read at colleges, to lecture at feminist conventions, to speak to women's church groups. The galleys of other writers' books thunked through her mail slot regularly, with requests for any comments she might have. There were more interviews, and she was featured prominently in an uplifting article in Newsweek on aging in America. She'd become a public personage.
Her children were bemused by the transformation, by encountering their mother, who'd always been formidable and remote, more intimately in her work and in interviews than they'd known her themselves in what they laughingly began to call "real life."
Clary wrote to her brother, Alan: "I have to confess to you some bitterness at Mother's success, at her parlaying (oh, oh! here comes the accusation) our whole family's misery into her own triumph. Her spiritual triumph, at that. And oddly, I resent too, the skill with which it's been done, the points she gets for that."
Though Alan had his own differences with his mother, he thought of himself as more forgiving of her public achievement, and of her transformation. This in spite of the fact that it was he of the three children who had perhaps suffered most on account of his mother's spiritual crisis. He was the youngest in the family, five years younger than the middle child, Clary, and he was the one who lived alone with Lily after his parents' marriage ended, since the two girls had already left for college. He could still remember the silent dinners with Lily before he escaped to his room to do his homework--the steady, and to him revolting, sound of his mother's chewing and swallowing sharpening his awareness of her physical being. Whenever he heard her footsteps pass in the hallway, he stopped still in the fear that she might knock on his door, might want to talk to him.
But Alan was happily married now. He had put his own uncomfortable teenage years behind him. When he opened the Times Book Review and, for the first time without anticipating it, encountered his mother's startled and imperious gaze across space and time, he felt safe.
The Distinguished Guest. Copyright © by Sue Miller. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Beautifully written, insightful, big issues, very compelling characters. I liked this book a lot, and was constantly impressed with Miller's ability to get to the heart of a situation: dealing with an aging parent; coping with the loss of control over a diseased body; figuring out what makes a marriage work. Her contention that language is one of the factors that makes us who we are made me stop and think. There were many memorable passages. I am very glad to have found this novel.
Lily Maynard is a famous author, famous mainly because she wrote her first book at 72 years of age. Alan, her youngest child, is an architect who lives on the East Coast with his French wife Gaby. Lily is now in her 90s and has Parkinsons and comes to live with Alan. Their relationship is complicated and contentious, but the author never fully explains why. Good writing, excellent description, but the reader is left a little unsatisfied at the end.
This book has some of the best character development that I have read in recent years. It reminds me of classic novels, like those of Charles Dickens (such as Oliver Twist) for capturing the interior perspective of the character. Four characters receive this thorough treatment, and through their thoughts you see the tangled, complex relations that have built up around one woman's decision to leave a marriage many years before. Those who like lots of action and plot surprises will hate the book. Those who adore nuanced dialogue and story development will find this a subtle treat. The Distinguished Guest revolves around the visit by Lily Maynard, who became a literary superstar in her 70s for her memoirs of a failed marriage and her fiction about the challenges of integration in the 50s and 60s. She is suffering from Parkinson's Disease and needs help. Plans are being made for her to move into a nursing home, but there is a wait for a place. In the meantime, she is staying with her son, Alan, and his wife. The house is constantly filled with visiting writers and scholars who want to consult with and interview the famous Lily. Each character is strongly alienated from each other character based on an incomplete understanding of that character's perspective and experience. None of them make much of an attempt to bridge the communications' gaps. The book provides a useful perspective on the problems of achieving closeness among adults, and adds helpful insights into family roles. The book has an unusual and rewarding style. It shifts seamlessly among literary snippets, old letters, internal thoughts, dialogue, and visual images to provide a broad perspective on the issues. The Distinguished Guest also addresses the philosophical issue of what one's responsibility is towards fostering racial equality and integration. The book has a lot of useful observations about that issue that will be especially informative to those who missed the civil rights struggles of the 1960s and 1970s. Those perspectives launch themselves forward into providing insight for today's society. I had the pleasure of listening to the book be read in an unabridged version by Frances Cassidy. She does a marvelous job of capturing the essence of each character, their directness or wiliness, with her easy shifts in accent, pacing, and pauses. I felt like I was listening to a great one woman dramatic performance on Broadway. I suspect that the book is harder to understand without the benefit of this outstanding reading, available from Books on Tape. After you read this story, I suggest that you write a series of letters to those you care about to explain your feelings about them, and what your own motivations are in life. These disclosures can be a healing balm that soothes the chafing caused by misunderstanding your pursuit of your convictions as representing a lack of love for the person. By revealing what you meant, you can overcome negative presumptions that create a hurtful distance. Enjoy being closer, even if that means feeling less distinguished in the process. Donald Mitchell, co-author of The Irresistible Growth Enterprise and The 2,000 Percent Solution