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The compromises of marriage

The Baltimore Sun

The Senator's Wife

By Sue Miller

Alfred A. Knopf / 306 pages / $24.95

Sue Miller wastes no time in setting up the tight yet troubling arc of her eighth novel, The Senator's Wife, about two women feeling their way through the peril and paradox of marriage. She conjures an attached townhouse and sets it in the quaint New England village of Williston. She fills the rooms with her main characters, then dollies in for an extreme close-up, from which vantage point we view their oddly parallel lives.

Meri and Nathan are newlyweds in a somewhat hasty, possibly shaky union. They've got sex and heat between them, but not much else. Nathan, a history professor, has a shot at tenure at the local college. Meri has given up her loft apartment and a job she liked to follow Nathan from the Midwestern town where they met and married to this new, uncharted life. The down payment on their half of the double townhouse is really a bet on their future.

The other house belongs to Delia and Tom Naughton, a retired senator and his wife. They're both in their 70s now, much further along on the journey their new neighbors have just begun. Tom's rarely home, his serial infidelity having eroded not just his senatorial career, but his marriage. He and Delia, though not divorced, now live separate lives. Tom lives in Washington, where he works for a fancy law firm. Delia divides her time between the Williston house and her cherished apartment in Paris.

As Nathan and Meri move in and unpack, as the sounds of their days and nights filter through the homes' common wall, Delia recalls her life with Tom. Though married in name only, they have reunited over the years. Sometimes it was for a Senate campaign, at other times for the sheer pleasure of being together. Tom may be a philanderer, but Delia's still the love of his life. Incapable of fidelity, he folds his wife into the ranks of the women he's driven to woo and win.

Here's Delia, recalling life on the campaign trail: "She surprised herself, though, by enjoying it, tentatively at first, and then fully, truly. But as she told herself, she'd always liked that part of political life with Tom - the long days moving around among people charmed by him, interested in him. The speeches, full of an idealism and passion that were Tom at his best. The late-night sessions with aides, the loose, easy humor, the relaxed public touching - his hand at her elbow, around her shoulders. His claiming her over and over: 'My wife ... ,' 'My wife ... ,' 'My better half ... ' "

While Delia's drifting through time, Meri's trying to push forward. She gets a great job at the local radio station producing human-interest features for the news hour, then promptly scares herself and Nathan with an unplanned pregnancy. The baby, Asa, comes too soon in the marriage and brings with him not just the usual chaos, but also a bout of postpartum depression.

"He cried because he was sleepy and wasn't yet asleep, because he was waking up, because he was wet, because he'd [pooped] in his diaper, because he was about to vomit, because, it seemed to her, he didn't want to be here. How could this be her life, this sleepless, exhausted stumble from one failed activity to another?"

At the heart of the story is Delia's complicated relationship with Tom, how neither is willing to dissolve their broken marriage. When Delia's children learn that their parents are still lovers, they're shocked. Though Miller takes a stab at explaining this seemingly unbreakable connection, at how it outrages the people outside it, it's the denouement that she's really after.

Miller jumps back and forth in time to show us the setbacks and compromises that shaped the Naughton marriage and are now at work in Meri and Nathan's. She switches points of view, now telling Meri's story, then returning to Delia's. The result is like hearing a pair of scales played simultaneously, one ascending, the other descending. It leaves the listener waiting for the moment the notes will converge.

This comes as you would expect, when the disparate lives on either side of the shared walls of the townhouse finally meet. Miller sets up a series of shocking betrayals that are a little creepy and somewhat forced. Tom and Delia pay the steepest price. Meri, as we learn in the final chapter, escapes largely unscathed. Like Delia at the start of the book, Meri looks back.

"She can remember feeling then that she and Nathan would have no story in the sense that Delia and Tom did, no parallel deep currents of love between them. She thought that she already knew what marriage was, what its limits were. She had thought they were in it. She didn't know they'd barely begun. She couldn't have imagined the long, slow processes that would change them, change what they felt for each other."

It's a betrayal of its own, this soft and facile landing, cushioned by excuses and platitudes. The complexities set up in the exploration of Tom and Delia's union are too easily abandoned by Miller. And Meri's past behavior, selfish and unforgivable, not only is forgiven but forgotten. You're left with an unsatisfying ending as you sort through the events that came before.

Veronique de Turenne writes for the Los Angeles Times.

EXCERPT

"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."

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