How can something so wrong feel so right? And does this mean maybe it’s not so wrong after all? These are the hot and messy questions that cool, poised Sue Miller addresses in novel after novel. She has shown us how it could seem just fine to have sex with a boyfriend while your daughter lies beside you in bed (The Good Mother); why a teenage girl and a sleazy older man might be momentarily perfect for each other (Lost in the Forest); and in her new novel, The Senator’s Wife, how an insecure woman might find herself…well, to reveal the erotic transaction upon which this book’s plot somewhat awkwardly pivots would spoil an interesting surprise.
Thirtysomething newlyweds Nathan and Meri move into a New England townhouse, and quickly strike up a friendship with their starchy elderly neighbor, Delia Naughton. Though she is married to a famous onetime U.S. senator, Tom Naughton, Delia now lives alone, seeing Tom only on his occasional visits from Washington. That Miller sets the novel in the early years of Bill Clinton’s presidency seems to be more than a coincidence. We soon learn that Tom, like the former president, is magnetic, generous, and easily moved. He is also a serial philanderer. In a flashback, Miller describes the chilling moment in 1971 when Delia discovered Tom’s most unforgivable affair, a romance with their daughter’s close friend.
Nonetheless, Delia has managed to preserve her relationship with Tom, in part, by refusing to live with him. (Precisely how this setup helped Delia overcome her pain remains unclear, as Miller’s portrait of the complicated Naughton marriage is suspiciously blurry.) Meanwhile, Meri watches her own partnership falter when, after becoming pregnant, she begins to feel undesirable to Nathan. (Miller describes Meri as ”an attractive version of Pete Rose,” a truly strange image that makes it a bit too easy to understand Meri’s concerns.) Their son, Asa, is born the same month that Tom suffers a crippling stroke, which means the helpless, word-slurring senator moves into Delia’s household just as the helpless, mewling infant comes home with Meri and Nathan.
The carnal twist Miller ultimately devises to bring the narrative to a head is more puzzling than plausible. Would the characters in question really let themselves be swept away with the activity Miller depicts? It’s hard to wrap your head around, despite Miller’s graceful and powerful gifts for description. As she has repeatedly demonstrated, the variety of ways people find to connect with one another beggars the imagination. Though apparently not hers. B