The Senator's Wife is really about two wives who live next door to each other in a duplex for about a year - a year that turns out to be pivotal for them both. It's a story about marriage and motherhood at different stages, and it reinforces the truism that no one really knows what goes on in a relationship except the people in it.
Meri meets Delia Naughton on the shared front porch of a duplex; she and her husband Nathan are about to buy one side of it, and Delia has been living on the other side for over thirty years. Meri, who tends to be drawn toward maternal figures, is fascinated by Delia, while Nathan is fascinated by Delia's husband, retired senator Tom Naughton, who never seems to be around. Delia has an open, yet reserved, way about her that makes Meri very curious, and when Delia goes to Paris for a couple of months, Meri's house-sitting gives her a chance to...well, snoop. What she learns makes her feel strange about her neighbors, especially when Tom Naughton eventually turns up at Delia's. Meri feels strange about a lot of things that year. A Midwest native, she has relocated to the East Coast for her husband's new faculty position, become a homeowner, found a new job, and unexpectedly gotten pregnant.
I'm not necessarily drawn to maternal figures, but I am somewhat intrigued by vital older women myself, and I shared Meri's fascination with Delia. After a number of infidelities on Tom's part, she's adapted quite well to living on her own in the house they shared, and in her own apartment in Paris for four months each year. But while she can't really live with Tom, she can't quite live without him either; and despite his affairs, he really can't let his wife go. The relationship they've maintained for over twenty years - to no one's knowledge but their own - seems to work fairly well for them both...until Tom suffers a stroke. When Delia decides it's up to her to assume the responsibility of caring for him, she brings him back home to stay.
Sue Miller's writing is almost stream-of-consciousness in places, as she spends a lot of time inside both Delia's and Meri's heads. This is a novel of domestic drama, but not melodrama. While the details may vary, a lot of what makes up the story in The Senator's Wife are things that happen every day - moments of marital intimacy and conflict; pregnancy, childbirth, and the difficult adjustments and sometime ambivalence of new motherhood (which I think Miller nails quite well); the mix of awkwardness and enjoyment in getting to know new people and places; and the challenges of aging and illness. The climax of the novel is NOT something that happens every day, but it makes sense in context, although I admit I was a bit dismayed by it. I was also a bit uncomfortable with how sexually charged the story was. As a writer whose novels tend to be character-driven and relationship-based, Miller has never shied away from sex as a theme or topic. I don't think she used it inappropriately or gratuitously here, but I just felt that she made direct reference to it more than was strictly necessary to serve the story; implication would have served just fine in a number of instances, in my opinion.
I've read most of Sue Miller's novels, and I think I'd place this one in the upper ranks, although Family Pictures remains my favorite. The Senator's Wife was absorbing reading - thoughtfully written, with characters and situations that I'm still thinking about.