What makes a good marriage? That’s the question driving Sue Miller’s 11th novel, “Monogamy.” And without spoiling anything, I can tell you that the book’s title isn’t the full answer for the couple in this story.
Beginning with “The Good Mother” in 1986, Miller has garnered a devoted readership for her character-driven, psychologically astute domestic novels, many of which delve deeply into how marriages and families work – or don’t. Fans will not be disappointed with “Monogamy,” an emotionally perceptive book that tracks a woman’s conflicted feelings about her long marriage following her husband’s sudden death. Miller’s first novel since “The Arsonist” (2014) hits many of her recurrent themes – including how impulsive behavior, sexual or otherwise, can fracture relationships, and how memories can change over time.
Annie and Graham McFarlane are not an obvious match. When they first meet in their mid-30s at a party celebrating the opening of his bookstore in Cambridge, Massachusetts, both are ashamed by the failures of their first marriages. Graham is outsized in every way – physically large, gregarious, Rabelaisian in his appetites and enthusiasm. Annie is petite and self-contained, a photographer sometimes accused of coldness or detachment. As their daughter Sarah later explains, “My mother holds it all in, my father lets it out.”
Annie is drawn to Graham’s joyfulness and “his honest embrace of pleasure,” but she sometimes finds him overwhelming and worries that he will consume her whole.
A third party in their marriage is Graham’s first wife, Frieda, who left him because their open marriage and his many affairs were causing her too much pain. But Graham, “a person who never wasted a friendship, or a relationship,” has remained close with her, and, remarkably, Frieda and Annie have become good friends over the three decades of his second marriage.
“He’s been much more careful in his marriage to Annie,” Miller writes. “More careful and more faithful.” But, we learn in the next sentence, “not entirely faithful.” And that’s the rub. It’s also what’s troubling Graham on what turns out to be his last day alive: He feels bad about an impulsive affair that was meant to be a lighthearted fling but has turned into an albatross. He chastises himself for being “such a fat, sad, needy man.” Annie, missing the import of what he’s trying to tell her until much later, tries to jolly him. “I thought you were a fat, happy man,” she ribs.
Miller takes us through the waves of emotions Annie experiences after the shock of Graham’s death and her realization of his infidelity. Among them is rage – at both Graham and herself – for allowing herself to be subsumed by him. Her life feels shapeless, empty, depleted without his energy. If she’d been more separate and independent, she thinks, “Then she wouldn’t feel so hollowed-out now.”
There’s a lot of explication in the novel’s early scenes, backstories that are dutifully spelled out. But “Monogamy” pulls you in, especially when Miller shifts her sympathetic gaze from one McFarlane to another in tight third-person perspectives – Graham, Annie, Frieda, Frieda’s son Lucas, and Annie’s daughter Sarah. They all come to realize that, encouraged by Graham, they had relied on him too much. This is a novel that works not through dazzling images or narrative pyrotechnics but through the steady accretion of clear-eyed observations relayed in limpid prose.
Miller captures Graham’s magnetism, a centrifugal force even in his absence. He’s a man who overcompensated for his unhappy, fatherless childhood – yet was unable to make up for the lack of affection from his abandoned, abusive mother. Annie comes to realize that “She could never have surrendered enough of herself to make it perfect for him.”
On her twisty road to a gentler, more straightforward grief, Annie recalls that her bookseller husband believed that reading fiction was consoling because it “suggests that life has a shape. … That it has sequence and consequence,” which “made life seem to matter.” She also recalls that Graham called her an open book – not in an insulting way, but fondly, “A book, open to him.”
The key to a happy marriage, Miller’s moving story suggests, lies in just this: two people opening themselves up to one another – like inviting books.
In addition to The Christian Science Monitor, Heller McAlpin reviews books regularly for NPR, The Wall Street Journal, and other publications.