The Senator's Wife

The Senator's Wife

by Sue Miller


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The Senator's Wife by Sue Miller

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—wife of the two-term liberal senator Tom Naughton—is Meri's new neighbor in the adjacent New England town house. Tom's chronic infidelity has been an open secret in Washington circles, but despite the complexity of their relationship, the bond between them remains strong. Soon Delia and Meri find themselves leading strangely parallel lives, as they both reckon with the contours and mysteries of marriage: one refined and abraded by years of complicated intimacy, the other barely begun. With precision and a rich vitality, Sue Miller—beloved and bestselling author of While I Was Gone—brings us a highly charged, superlative novel about marriage and forgiveness.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780307276698
Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date: 01/06/2009
Series: Vintage Contemporaries Series
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 320
Sales rank: 572,792
Product dimensions: 5.22(w) x 8.01(h) x 0.69(d)

About the Author

Sue Miller is the best-selling 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.


Boston, Massachusetts

Date of Birth:

November 29, 1943

Place of Birth:

Chicago, Illinois


B.A., Radcliffe College, 1964; M.A.T., Wesleyan U., 1965; Ed.M., Harvard U., 1975; M.A. Boston U., 1980

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.

Reading Group Guide

“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.

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?


“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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The Senator's Wife 3.2 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 84 reviews.
Debbie-J-1970 More than 1 year ago
I found this book a quick enjoyable read and think it would be great for a book club. It brings up lots of things to discuss, such as adultery, marriage, women's lib, politics and friendship. I felt it was a story about how much a woman (Delia) truly loved her husband and what she was willing to do to spend the rest of her life with him. At times I was very annoyed at Delia and felt she wasn't really living her life, just kind of waiting for Tom to come to her. As for Meri and Nathan, I do not think their relationship was explored enough. I found myself wondering if he'd had an affair, which was certainly eluded to at one point. And why was Nathan so interested in Tom? I do not think that question was really answered. **SPOILER** The ending of the book really made me dislike Meri. Why didn't she try to make amends with Delia? She just destroyed the lives of these two people and went off to live a wonderful life with her husband and three boys. Thank you Sue Miller for a book that really makes you think about life issues long after you finish reading.
Guest More than 1 year ago
After Ms. Miller wrote so softly about the 2 very different women, the ending came as a slap in the face. It seemed very,very crude, compared to the rest of the story. I was very mad at the author for handling it this way. I will not recommend this book to anyone. I hestitate to buy another of her books.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I've read several other Sue Miller books and have really enjoyed them, but The Senator's Wife was absolutely awful. While Miller's writing style is to be appreciated, the plot started nowhere and went no place worth going. I'm not sure why I kept reading except for thinking that it would at some point get didn't. Don't waste your time reading this.
KRD More than 1 year ago
We read this for book club and most of us thought it was so-so, but oddly enough, we had one of our best ever book discussions. Go figure.
masher1022 More than 1 year ago
I have read all Sue Miller's book but I felt like I was plodding along.I loved the characters and how she brought them to life but I kept anticipating more movement in the story and when it got to the end I found it very anticlimatic.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
An interesting delve into the complex emotion called love. Many more modern women would find the Senator's Wife a difficult character to relate to as she would likely signify everything that was wrong with our more traditional times. Modern women may seek to relate to the young, recently married, career-minded neighbor. After all, these women seem as different as night and day. They seem like they would have little in common. But as you get to know these women, you find that they are very similar in their core. They are both looking for love and acceptance in the form of relationships. The ups and downs that they go through in this search is something that all women should be able to relate to, whether or not they agree with the actions that they take. Love is never simple.
babyjj89 More than 1 year ago
I was really disappointed by this book. After what many readers and reviews said about the book, I was expecting something wonderful, but instead, I found the book to be quite a bore. I'll admit it was interesting, but the book had so many quiet spots, and I felt as if it were moving too slow. It seemed as if the book was never going to end. The way Sue Miller writes is in an interesting way, but it didn't have the ability to completely captivate my attention. Throughout the entire book, I felt like a bystander - like a ghost stands by and watches everything. Never did I feel involved with any of the characters' emotions.
GracieO More than 1 year ago
The reader can understand how neighbors become involved in each others lives and we are sometimes shocked at how each character behaves. I had empathy for each person.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
It may just be this is not my style of book, but it was hard to get into at first. I struggled with understanding the story, or where it was headed for the first half. Once I got past literally the first half of the book, I enjoyed it more. She could have done more with character development in the beginning. I struggled connecting with the characters. Maybe if Sue went into the past lives of the senator and his wife first, there would have been a deeper connection.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I have no idea why I kept reading. Most boring mundane book that I've ever read.
Xkoqueen More than 1 year ago
Life is not for the weak of heart. The Senator’s Wife by Sue Miller was an interesting and gripping read. The story is told from the dual perspectives of Delia, a seventy-four year old woman, and her new next door neighbor, Meri, a young, recently married woman. The story is also told in multiple time periods. The time period changes are identified and easy to follow. The Senator’s Wife is a story about relationships, love, loss, longing, desires, and human nature. It’s about the uncertainty with which one’s adult life starts and the surety that comes from experience in one’s second-half—what is expected of you, what you can expect, and most importantly, what you can endure. Delia and her philandering husband, Tom, have stayed married but live apart. Meri and her husband, Nathan, live together but are sometimes uncomfortable with the adjustments in their new relationship. There are so many relationship nuances and parallels that come up in both couples’ lives. This is also about the friendship between Delia and Meri. It is a loose friendship based primarily on proximity. Meri looks to Delia for the attention and guidance that she never received from her mother. Meri is needy. She needs attention. She needs guidance. She needs the answers to life. She thinks needs to know intimate details about Delia to understand her. Delia has needs too. She needs her husband’s companionship. She needs him to be in love with her. She needs him to want her on her terms. At one point, Meri likens Delia’s situation with Jane Eyre—both Jane and Delia get their man only after tragedy has rendered them maimed. None of the characters in this book are perfect, and in their imperfection they are perfectly human. There are many unlikable aspects about each character, and some of their decisions and comments make one cringe. They are selfish, but they don’t think they are. They make choices thinking there is no victim from their behavior, however, there is no victim only if no one finds out. At one point, Delia tells Meri that as you get older you give yourself permission to forgive yourself. Meri is able to forgive her actions and move forward even knowing that she enabled Tom to finally destroy his relationship with Delia.  I find it interesting, in an odd way, that so many reviews are based on whether or not the reader likes the characters. For me, it is the quality of the writing and the richness of the storytelling that matter most. Sue Miller has provided quality writing and a unique and rich story in The Senator's Wife.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
JustMyTwoCents More than 1 year ago
This is not an "action-packed" story, but it still carries the reader along. However--SPOILER ALERT-- I was completely put off by the last two sentences in this novel. I did not understand it. To me Meri's and Tom did what they did out of a combined neediness and selfishness. This novel, to me, underlined the fine line between neediness and selfishness. Delia was needy, but not selfish. Tom and Meri were needy and selfish both, leading them to recklessness.  I was left feeling so badly for Delia, but angry at Meri for seeming over the years to -- while knowing what she did was wrong -- still identify with Tom and make him out to be a protagonist, thereby excusing what he and she did. The daughter Nancy was painted as bitter and vindictive and perhaps she was, but in the end I couldn't help but feel had she listened to her daughter, Delia could have saved herself a lot of heartache. Sad story. 
The_Book_Wheel_Blog More than 1 year ago
When I first heard about The Senator’s Wife by Sue Miller, I was so excited. As a news and politics junkie, I was delighted at the prospect of reading a political book written from the other side, especially one that focused on the family of a politician rather than the politician himself. It is my own fault for not doing enough research about this book before adding to my 2013 TBR Challenge list because, as it turns out, it isn’t about a senator at all. Sure,there is a man who was at one point in time a senator, but he’s just a placeholder for a husband who could have just as easily been an accountant or a professor. Needless to say, I was disappointed when I realized that this would not be a book about what it is like to be married to a senator. Luckily, I learned this early on and was able to readjust my expectations accordingly. Unfortunately, even after having done so, I was not thrilled about the book. I know it has amazing reviews, but I felt like all of the characters were hedging their bets and none were all-in on anything. The tiptoeing around and across the issues, rather than jumping into them, led to a shallow read that missed out on a lot of opportunities to go more into depth. None of this is to say it isn’t a good book, but it isn’t the book for me. Perhaps my initial expectations tainted my reading experience from the beginning, or maybe this just isn’t a genre that I’m as interested in as I used to. So I won’t recommend that you read (or not read) it because you might love it!
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