A Public Servant

Reviewed by Connie Schultz
Sunday, January 20, 2008


By Sue Miller

Knopf. 306 pp. $24.95

It was probably inevitable that Sue Miller, a gifted storyteller, would eventually unleash her talents on the topic of political marriage. As Miller explained recently in an interview with NPR's Linda Wertheimer, she has long been intrigued by the dynamics of such marriages, particularly those in which a wife's loyalty seems to outlast her husband's worthiness. Politics breeds the sacrificial wife who abandons her dreams for those of her husband but then suffers public humiliation when the honorable member fails to keep his in his pants.

What, Miller wonders, makes these wives stay put in marriages that diminish them?

It's a good question, but it remains unanswered in an otherwise compelling tale of the marital complexities and disappointments in Miller's latest novel, The Senator's Wife.

First, a disclosure: I am a U.S. senator's wife. I am fairly new to the role, and it is neither my vocation nor occupation, but it bears mentioning. It also explains why I could not pass up the chance to read this book. There are so many assumptions about marriages like mine. What might Miller's be?

This is the tale of two marriages and how they intersect and, eventually, collide. Meri and Nathan are young and still negotiating the terrain of matrimony when they move next door to Delia Naughton. Delia is married to former U.S. senator Tom Naughton, a man who cheats on his wife so often one half-expects this tale to turn into a murder mystery.

Despite his infidelities, Delia is unwilling to sever all ties with him. They no longer live together, but she won't divorce Tom and occasionally still sleeps with him. Miller depicts their dalliances with her usual sizzle and pop, and many readers will celebrate Delia's 70-something vivacity. Still, the question hovers: Why waste her energy on him?

We are told countless times that Tom is charismatic, but Miller gives little proof of his charms. Instead, Delia just seems a fool. "She knew Tom had other women, and she told herself that every time she was thinking of him, he was thinking of someone else. Every time she wanted him, he was making love with someone else. But when she was swept with jealous longing for him, none of that mattered. She couldn't help herself. She called him."

We are given no mitigating circumstances for her continued devotion. Husband and wife do not share a commitment to any causes, nor does Delia enjoy the spotlight. We learn early that she prefers to live in small-town New England, far away from Washington.

"She supposed most of it was just getting away with Tom from the sexually charged atmosphere of Washington, where a handsome man with power, a man who talked easily, a man who was charming and chivalric around women, could always find companionship. Or, more accurately, had to actively choose not to have companionship, if that's what he wanted."

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