The Senator's Wife
320 pp., $24.95
Reviewed by Elissa Elliott
Until Death Do Us Part?
When the Monica Lewinsky story broke in January of 1998, I was less interested in the he–said–she–saids than in Hillary's reaction. Certainly, she would leave her husband. Certainly, she would say, "Enough is enough."
Nope. Didn't happen. Of course, the media ran her 60 Minutes clip in a constant loop, reminding us of Hillary's edict on the Gennifer Flowers fiasco: "I'm not sitting here as some little woman standing by my man like Tammy Wynette. I'm sitting here because I love him." I was flummoxed, as others were, too, and I began to wonder: at what point do we women flee from an unhealthy relationship, even though we've promised until death do us part?
For me, this is the crux of Sue Miller's newest book, The Senator's Wife, which has enjoyed a nice run on the bestseller list. You could substitute other nouns for senator—pastor or actor or professional football player—because in the end, it's about living with a spouse who's inundated with accolades and who relishes the adoration, relishes it enough to continually put his family at risk.
The Senator's Wife is about marriage. It's about the compromises and decisions we make early on that will permeate every nook and cranny of the rest of our married lives. Meri and Nathan, newly married thirtysomethings, move into one side of a New England double house—the deal cinched after the realtor tells Nathan, a "the other side is owned by that old senator who's retired now." Nathan's face glows "as though in reverence," and he says, slowly, "Tom Naughton?"
Turns out Senator Naughton doesn't actually live there. His wife Delia does. Meri is infatuated with Delia—her regal manner, her standoffish beauty—and wants to know why she's living alone. But Delia's a closed book. So when Delia asks the young couple to mind her house while she's away for two months in Paris, Meri uses this fortuitous opportunity to snoop through Delia's dim rooms and hidden packets of correspondence from her long–gone husband.
The story that unfolds in the letters is that Senator Naughton is a charismatic charmer who ran away with his daughter's gorgeous college roommate. And that was only betrayal number one.
Still, Delia feels strongly that "she believed in him, and she believed that they were meant, somehow, to be together. That was what was destroyed more than anything else when she learned about his affairs—that sense of destiny." After a time, Delia and the senator agreed to stay married, but to live apart. She kept the house in Williston; he stayed in D.C. She had him purchase a little apartment in Paris, so she could escape the daily news of a philandering husband.
In Delia's absence, Meri is horrified to discover she's pregnant—the timing is just off, she thinks, with Nathan just starting his professorship at the college, and her learning the ropes at the local radio station's hour–long newsmagazine. She abhors her expanding body, and once the baby comes, she struggles to know what to do with her child—she's absolutely terrified of him. She wonders at this gift she's been given—and why she's unable to love her child the way she wants to. She wonders at the yearning love in Delia's and the senator's letters—how they've kept it alive through repeated betrayals.
Then, Senator Naughton has a stroke, and Delia rushes from Paris to be at his bedside in Washington. In a flurry of giddy joy, she oversees his transfer to her Williston house—she will nurse him back to health. She had always thought of them as belonging together, and here they would be, without interference from his idolizing female fans.
But there is one more betrayal that Delia couldn't have foreseen. And when it comes in all its ickiness (yes, that's the right word), both Meri and Delia finally know why they do anything they do. For love. Out of love. As wacky as that love may look to an outsider.
Miller shines here. I think it's because she's taken a controversial woman and described her as what we would term a weak woman, then explained the puzzling process of how she got from point A to point B. Here it is, in Delia's words to a young reporter: "So let me say that I think marriage is a wonderful but a complicated institution … . I'm campaigning with the senator because I'm committed to him. Because I believe in him. Because I believe that he deserves another term and will be terrific in another term, and because I love him."
What? After what he's done to her? Continued to do to her? Is that really love? Miller leaves us asking such questions.
Elissa Elliott is a writer living in Rochester, Minnesota. She's at work on a novel about Eve.
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