Monday, December 19, 2022

A Tribute to Novelist Sue Miller

Although this happened more when I was younger, I occasionally run into an author who so impresses me that I know I will read all of her work as soon as I can get hold of it. Sue Miller is just such an author.  I have now read all but one of her long list of excellent novels including her memoir of her father, The Story of My Father

The recurring themes in her novels had already convinced me that much of her fiction is autobiographical, and her memoir of her father solidified that conviction. It is as if she has stirred together a cauldron of her memories of her several marriages and her life as a parent, and then spills them out in the pages of her novels. The Arsonist, one of her latest novels, is as usual, a close description of the everyday life of her characters. While the title suggests it is a novel about arson, turns out that the arsons and the arsonist are of minor importance to Miller while the major theme is how relationships go wrong and occasionally go right. 

The Boston Globe says of this late novel, “Entertaining…Fantastic sizzle both sexual and spiritual.” While sexual sizzle is no longer an issue for me, the spiritual sizzle of her work hits me hard and stays with me. 

Many years ago I read and reviewed her first, and most famous novel, The Good Mother. And then, only this past summer did I pick up an early novel, While I Was Gone. Having just traveled to my home for a final visit with my last living sibling, and while there involved in an intense discussion with my oldest male friend about choosing death while still mobile and cognizant, I found myself arguing for life and possibility. My brother died while I was on the train coming home, and his death added to the impact the novel had on me. The heroine of the novel is married when she has kind of mystical experience in which she feels outside her life, indeed, outside her body. She then goes through a series of reflections on her life regarding her marriage and family. She wonders if she has chosen well, and begins a flirtation with an old lover which very nearly derails her marriage. What occurs is that she begins to think about alternate lives she might have lived and alternate relationships she might have pursued. In short, she considers all that seems bland and repetitive in her present life, and only at the last moment begins to realize all that is good about her family life and her life with her husband. It takes a shock and a crisis to jolt her into this new appraisal.

Another of the recurring themes in her books is Alzheimer’s or other debilitating diseases. In The Story of My Father, she recounts the slow dissolution of her father as he struggles with and finally succumbs to the disease.  While the book is sad, Miller is brutally honest about her own feelings, her resentments mixed with fear and deep loyalty to her once brilliant, academic father.

Although there are plots and story-lines, it is what happens in the interior life that really interests Miller and creates the spiritual sizzle of her words. While she has immense respect and admiration for her father’s intellectual pursuits, she also comes to realize how his intense interests in many ways distanced him from his wife and children.
There was an impartiality, and therefore a distance, in even my father’s closest and most loving attention…I certainly knew him to be capable of forgetfulness of what to him seemed mundane or unimportant, and this occasionally included obligations he’d undertaken to one of us or to my mother…the nightmare side of living with someone whose first allegiance is elsewhere, is other worldly. You are left, you are abandoned. You have no real importance in the great scheme of things.
So far I have said nothing about Miller’s conflicted relationship with her mother, and her self-doubts being a mother, who, like her father, needs huge amounts of time to write and reflect, too often to the detriment of her children.

There is so much more to say about the complex emotional reflections of this brilliant author. I will content myself with a final comment about Miller’s unabashed love of men. Of course she is critical of the non-domesticity of many/most men, but her descriptions of her father and of the husbands in her novels leave no doubt that she admires so much about good men, good fathers.  Perhaps there is a book, The Good Father, in her future.

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