Executive Times






2008 Book Reviews


The Senator’s Wife by Sue Miller








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Why do we do what we do? Sue Miller riffs on that question in her new novel, The Senator’s Wife. There are two marriages that are central to the story. The title refers to Delia Naughton, wife of Senator Tom Naughton. Meri Fowler and her husband, Nathan, have moved into the double house adjacent to Delia’s. Different generations, different marriages and different relationships. Tom no longer lives with Delia, but they have remained married. He has been unfaithful to Delia throughout their marriage. Why do they all do what they do? Especially, why does Delia tolerate Tom’s behavior? Does she go so far as to forgive him? Here’s an excerpt, from the beginning of Chapter 2, “Delia, August 1993,” pp. 23-26:

It rains steadily, through the night and Delia wakes from time to time to its heavy racket in the trees outside her open bedroom window. At one point she gets up and she puts another blanket on the bed.

When she wakes for good, though, at about five, light is flooding the room. There's a cool breeze moving the branches of the tree out­side, but she imagines she can feel the heat of the day entering the house, rising.

She begins assessing her body—what hurts today, what doesn't—and then flings back the covers in irritation with herself How tedious can you be? She's up, she goes down the hall to the bathroom, to urinate, to brush her teeth, to lay out her medications and take the morning batch.

The kitchen, at the back of the house, seems cold and dark when she comes down the back stairs, and she's glad for the sweater she pulled on over her bathrobe. She makes her breakfast and sits listen­ing to the news on the local public-radio station. There's much talk, a year later, about the recovery from Hurricane Andrew in Florida. And locally, they've arrested someone who'd been dropping rocks on cars from an overpass on the state highway.

At seven, she goes upstairs and writes a long letter to her older son, Evan. Then she showers and gets dressed in what she thinks of as her work clothes—today a cotton dress and low-heeled sandals. She puts on the makeup she usually wears—mascara, lipstick, a little color on her cheeks—and looks at herself critically in the mirror. Well, she's done what she can, she can do no more.

It's around eight-thirty when she goes back downstairs to make her second cup of coffee at the espresso machine—black this time. She's just sitting down at the table to drink it when she hears a truck pull up outside, and then, in a minute, men's voices yelling at one another. Carrying her coffee, she goes to the living room, to the front windows. The moving van in the driveway on the other side of the double house is huge, red and white, and the men are busy around it, opening doors, pulling out clanking metal ramps. They are young, they are wearing matching T-shirts, though she can't make out what they say. Delia can hear someone next door, inside what she still thinks of as Ilona's house, thudding up the stairs.

As she sits looking out with her coffee, the thudding becomes steady. They have begun to carry furniture in. They shout to one another, they call back and forth from the driveway, from the foot of the stairs up to the top. The new owners, too, have arrived and added their voices to the din. Delia hears the young woman—Mary, her name is. No, Mai. She .spelled it for Delia, she remembers that now There was something nervy and tomboyish about her, qualities Delia likes in a girl. In a woman.

So this will be the end of the deep silence on the other side of the wall, then. Delia won't be sorry, though by now she's used to it—the house next door has been empty since Ilona Carter's death eight months or so ago. But even before then, her elderly neighbor's rou­tines weren't the kind that generated much noise. Certainly not noise at a level that could easily penetrate the multiple layers between Delia's house and hers—the solid brick fire wall, the studs and slatted lath on both sides, the two coats of old horsehair plaster, and then all that had been added and attached on top of that over the years—paint and wallpaper and wallpaper and paint again.

The one regular exception to the quiet had been in the late after­noons, when Ilona listened to classical music at a high volume while she had one very strong double martini, consumed with habitual slowness over several hours of listening, of getting up over and over to change the records: Ilona never made the transition to tapes or CDs. And though on Delia's side of the house the music sometimes caused a bothersome light buzzing of the window glass, for the most part she liked it, liked the way it seeped murmurously through the walls. She counted on it, actually. It was like listening to flowing water, she thought. Something as elemental as that.

It was harder occasionally when Ilona invited Delia over for a drink too, and put on a particular piece of music by a particular per­former she admired. Then they'd sit together in the overwhelming racket, Ilona smiling, her old head thrown back, her eyes behind the Coke-bottle lenses of her glasses closed in a kind of ecstasy, her large, horsey teeth exposed; Delia waiting with all the impatience of someone under a dentist's drill for the noise and the pain to stop.

Ilona was more than slightly deaf Thus the volume. She was also arthritic and had macular degeneration. "But I don't complain," she would say, when she'd finished complaining. And it was true that she was by nature a buoyant person. She confirmed Delia's opinion that musicians were usually the happiest people— Ilona had played second violin with a small symphony orchestra in the Midwest earlier in her life. Delia had known her for thirty years and felt an uncritical devotion to her for most of that time.

Ilona's death had been sudden. It was Delia who found her, and it was the silence late one winter afternoon that made her think to telephone over there. That made her go through the hall drawer for Ilona's keys when there was no answer to the ringing and ringing, that made her step across the ice-crusted front porch and let herself

in, that propelled her upstairs when Ilona didn't respond to her calls and wasn’t anywhere on the first floor.

She'd died in her sleep, apparently. At any rate, she was in bed with the covers pulled up nearly to her chin. Her skin had turned a startling yellow-gray. Her death shocked Delia, though shouldn't have. The old woman was ninety-two.

Delia herself was seventy-four when Ilona died. Old too, yes. But Ilona's presence, her very existence, had always made Delia feel young and vital—sometimes even girlish. Oh, she knew, of course that to the mostly truly young families who were her neighbors now, she and Ilona were more like than not. They inhabited a category: old woman. These neighbors might have understood that one was quite a bit older than the other, but what difference really did that make? What they would be focused on was the waste of their both still living alone in those two huge houses. And now Ilona is gone, and her side of the house will be reclaimed, transformed.

But the truth is, Delia is perfectly happy to have young people moving in. More liveliness, more children. There'd been a kind of pause on the street after the last of the previous batch of children had left, vanished into high school or college or life. For a few of those years there'd been hardly anyone playing on the street, there were few trick-or-treaters at Halloween, there were no cries echoing through the early dusk as the children ran through one another's yards.

Delia had missed it. It's good that the silence is over. The childless older couples have moved on. The houses have sold. Some were so large they've been turned into condominiums, so two or three fami­lies live where one did in the old days. Once again you saw children, you heard them—their high, light voices, their games, their occa­sional extravagant public weeping. She's glad for it. She's glad for this young couple moving in next to her. Perhaps they have children, or will have them. She hadn't asked when she met the woman.

When Delia leaves to go to work, there's no one outside. Ilona's front door is propped open though, and she can hear voices in the house.

She takes her car. Usually she walks, but she's decided she'll do some shopping today when her workday is over—she'll buy some little gifts for her new neighbors, something to make them feel welcome.


One reason we read novels is to examine and understand human behavior. The questions we have about behavior as we read The Senator’s Wife are never answered. Perhaps it’s enough to understand the “what” of forgiveness, and accept that we can never fully understand the “why.”


Steve Hopkins, February 21, 2008



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The recommendation rating for this book appeared

 in the March 2008 issue of Executive Times


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