Monday, September 05, 2022

Monogamy by Sue Miller

He’s been much more careful in his marriage to Annie. More careful and more faithful.
    Yet not entirely faithful.
    Which is partly what’s making him remember the end with Frieda. 
Because he’s done it again.

Sue Miller has done it again: written an astounding novel about family life and all of its complexities. 

In her newest novel, Monogamy, published in 2020, Miller undertakes to describe in meticulous detail the marriage of Graham and Annie. I will not be spoiling the novel for you readers by telling you that the anatomy of this marriage is described after Graham dies in his sleep of a heart attack. Viewed as an ideal couple by those who know them, Miller shows us the underside of the marriage as Annie begins to deal with her grief.

Both Annie and Graham have been married before. During the 70s Graham and Frieda had decided to experiment with an open marriage.

An open marriage. They’d agreed on it at first. It had been that era—the world was shifting and changing rapidly around them, and Graham had stepped into this altered universe eagerly, along with what seemed like half of Cambridge, compelled by all the things it seemed to promise—among them a different meaning for marriage, for sex.

The problems was that Graham had been happy in this new world, and Frieda hadn’t. She tired, she dutifully had a few lovers in the first year or so. But then she got pregnant with Lucas and realized that she’d really never wanted any of it.

As was so often the case, men jumped at this new freedom while so many women simply went along with it, or pretended to, in order to preserve their marriages. It is Frieda who steps away from the marriage, taking Lucas with her. Eventually, Graham and Frieda become friends and share custody of their young son. Frieda also, though not by choice, assumes the role of confessor for Graham, and he confesses to her his infidelity with a recently divorced woman in their circle of friends, Her name is Rosemary, and he also tells his oldest male friend about his new ‘slip’. 

The problem is that Rosemary—Rosemary Gregory, the woman he’s slept with maybe four maybe five times—has started to behave as if there’s some kind of commitment between them, as though she has a claim on him...He needs to end it, but that’s something he’s never been good at—disappointing people. At being, as he sees it,  unkind.

After his death, Annie discovers that both his best friend and Frieda knew of the infidelity, and it seems as if perhaps everyone knows but Annie.  

What is most amazing about Miller’s writing is how completely she develops her characters and how thoroughly she describes their lives. Although describing only an incident here and there, a memory of the past, an anticipation of the future, it feels to the reader that they are being told everything in detail.  Philosophers who called themselves phenomenologists argued that philosophy should be a description of lived life, and as Iris Murdoch has pointed out, if this is, indeed, the task of the philosopher, then novelists are the very best at doing this. And Sue Miller is of the first rank in this description of the lived inner lives of her characters. 

In the past couple of months I have read four of Miller’s novels, all close descriptions of marriages and family life. The Senator’s Wife equals the exquisitely detailed description of the slow dissolution of a marriage. While I Was Gone also displays the immense emotional intelligence of Sue Miller.  

It is hard to do justice to her novels by reviewing them, since their greatness is in the magnificent description of the relationships. She does not preach, and tells us that she has no great insights about monogamy or marriage. But I think you will disagree with the author’ own assessment of her work if you swim into her wonderfully articulated stories.

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