Meri is newly married to college professor Nathan. They relocate when he snags an excellent new job in the east, though she has mixed feeling about the move. Although pleased for her husband, she is losing a job she enjoys and an apartment she loves. Nathan decides that they will buy an attached house that is above their means --- mostly, Meri believes, because he discovers that his hero, ex-senator Tom Naughton, lives next door. She begins to wonder, not for the first time, what place she holds in their partnership.
Meri is somewhat mollified when she meets the senator's wife, Delia, an elderly yet vibrant woman who welcomes Meri into her home and shows Meri around the city while still keeping Meri at an arm's distance. Meri and Nathan are bewildered to find that Tom Naughton is nowhere to be seen; Delia off-handedly remarks that he will be home for a visit eventually. Meanwhile, Meri has found a job for an hour-long newsmagazine airing on a local radio station. She adores the work and is good at it.
Meri's story alternates with Delia's, as Delia muses on her long marriage to Tom and the reason for their living separately: Tom is chronically unable to stop his string of affairs. Yet Delia loves him, and welcomes him into her life and her bed intermittently, an attitude that divides her family --- especially after Tom's affair with a young friend of one of their children.
Meri is not happy to discover that she is pregnant. Her condition causes her to reconsider her relationship with her parents. Will she resort to the unloving, and sometimes physically abusive, manner of parenting she experienced growing up? As her body changes, so does her marriage. Nathan works longer hours, and is distracted by his job and the book he is writing. Meri's own work is disrupted when one of her co-workers chastises her for getting pregnant, making Meri wonder about the future of the job she so enjoys. And Meri's rather nebulous growing friendship with Delia is interrupted when the older woman leaves to spend time in Paris.
Delia has asked Meri to tend her houseplants and bring in her mail while she is away. Meri spends longer and longer periods of time in Delia's house, which feels more welcoming than her own. She also finds herself growing increasingly fascinated with Delia. Eventually, Meri cannot resist prying into the most private corners of Delia's home and her life. She regrets her lapse of moral judgment nearly as soon as she begins it, yet she continues. When Delia returns, Meri is uncomfortable with what she knows about Delia's personal life. She is even more uneasy when she meets Delia's husband. And something else perturbs her: her failure to confide in Nathan about what she has done.
As always, Sue Miller’s descriptions of women's relationships and emotions feel dead-on and relatable. The subtle yet definite feeling of lives on a collision course makes THE SENATOR'S WIFE a riveting page-turner. As in real life, these people are not one-note, and so they are delightfully unpredictable. As the intertwined lives of Meri and Delia twist in a startling yet (in retrospect) inevitable climax, the reader is left pondering intent, regret, forgiveness, the nature of marriage, motherhood and the ability of people to change, making this multilayered and thought-provoking novel a satisfying read long after the book is finished.
Reviewed by Terry Miller Shannon on January 23, 2011
The Senator's Wife