BOOKS

Middle-age crazy

After 40, love does a tango with death

DIANE TURBIDE June 7 1993
BOOKS

Middle-age crazy

After 40, love does a tango with death

DIANE TURBIDE June 7 1993

Middle-age crazy

BOOKS

After 40, love does a tango with death

FOR LOVE By Sue Miller (HarperCollins, 301 pages, $28.75)

The titles of Sue Miller’s novels are deceptive. The Good Mother (1986), Family Pictures (1990) and in particular her latest, For Love, could easily be mistaken for the kind of softheaded, sentimental fiction found on drugstore racks. In fact, Miller’s titles are often ironic, deliberately double-edged: in The Good Mother, a di-

vorced woman’s sexual awakening seems to come at the cost of losing custody of her beloved daughter. In Family Pictures, a young photographer eventually discerns the meaning of her troubled family dynamics through her work. And in For Love, a woman running away from her six-month-old second marriage learns that love among the middleaged inevitably includes the acceptance of death. “If we couldn’t anticipate dying, then we wouldn’t experience love the way we do,” Miller told Maclean’s. “Love very much involves the notion of something that is, finally, temporary. It has its ending, and without ac-

knowledging that, there really isn’t the possibility for deep attachment.”

Miller, 49, was wrapping up a three-week promotional tour across the United States and Canada before returning to the Boston home she shares with her second husband, writer Douglas Bauer. She said that she had particularly enjoyed giving public readings because of the direct connection to her readers—and because “I can control the way the characters and events are presented. I give them my interpretation of the material.”

That comment seems linked to Miller’s decision not to watch the 1988 movie version of her first novel, The Good Mother, which starred Diane Keaton. Nor did she watch the Family Pictures TV mini-series, starring Anjelica Huston, which aired in March. “In both cases I think people tried to honorably portray the characters,” she said. “But it’s simply too jarring for me to hear and see them on the screen; they’re too different from what’s in my head.” Still, Miller says that she is grateful for the new readers that the dramatizations created. Within a few weeks of the mini-series broadcasts, Family Pictures sold another 100,000 copies in paperback, bringing total sales to about 600,000. Meanwhile, The Good Mother has sold 1.5 million copies to date.

Those figures attest to Miller’s broad appeal, one that derives from her lucid, 'highly readable style and the

psychological complexity of her characters. All of her protagonists, The Good Mother’s Anna, Nina in Family Pictures and now For Love's Lottie Gardner, are uniquely memorable. Yet their lives mirror the personal and political changes that have affected most North American women for decades, from the sexual upheavals of the 1960s to the blended families of the 1990s. Paradoxically, while exploring one woman’s experience in precise, engaging detail, she articulates a wider female consciousness. And Miller’s ability to ground those women in everyday reality while chronicling their inner struggles to live—and love—wholly is what gives the books their extraordinary emotional depth.

The contemporary family, in all its variations, is the perfect setting to observe those struggles, says Miller, the second of four children bom to a church historian and his wife in Chicago. “I get irritated when people ask me questions like ‘Why do you always write about the family?’ I usually ask them why did Conrad always write about sailing. It’s a way to write about life.” What fascinates Miller is “the endless reverberation of any important action in a family’s life.” Each member interprets the same events differently, and then passes those perceptions on to their children. “It’s like a form of genetic study, only more complicated and interesting,” she said with a laugh.

For Love centres on Lottie Gardner, a 45year-old writer who has temporarily returned to her unhappy childhood home to help her brother, Cameron, sell the house. Lottie’s college-student son, Ryan, is helping her scrape and paint. Back in Chicago, Lottie’s second marriage is in trouble. Not only is her new stepdaughter rejecting her, but her husband, Jack, is belatedly grieving the death of his first wife. For 10 years, she had been incapacitated by severe strokes. He and Lottie conducted a love affair for she of those years, and married a few months after the wife’s death. Suddenly, Jack’s “private, understated sorrow” is interfering with his new life. And she is aghast at her own desire to flee. Alone in a motel room, she feels the “dizzy, empty happiness at being here, nowhere, alone at last.”

True to its theme, the novel begins with a death, the result of a misplaced, obsessive love. Cameron, Lottie’s brother, has rekindled an adolescent love affair with Elizabeth, who has fled an unfaithful husband and returned with her three children to her home town. When Elizabeth’s husband arrives, seeking reconciliation, Cameron’s efforts to keep Elizabeth result in a car accident that kills her teenage babysitter. The death could have turned the book into predictable melodrama. But instead, Miller uses the accident to underline the summer’s dangerous romantic follies and to create suspense about how the tragedy will forever alter each of their lives.

But it is Lottie’s predicament that is the heart of the book. All the events filter through her observant, critical eyes as she reflects on her role as sister, daughter, lover, wife, mother and friend. She even questions her deep love for her son, whom she raised alone. She thinks that Ryan “understands there is something suspect and finally self-serving in the very depth of her attachment to him.”

Lottie does find a way out of her marital impasse. As in real life, her route to selfknowledge and accommodation is indirect, sometimes confusing—and often funny. And Miller’s fine accomplishment is in charting that bumpy terrain so accurately.

DIANE TURBIDE