Sue Miller’s latest novel Monogamy is a book that sticks with you. I enjoyed it as much on the second reading as the first. And, I am sure at some point, there will be a third.
Miller’s writing style is subtle, eloquent with just the right amount of detail to inform but never overwhelm the reader. As Pulitzer Prize winning novelist Richard Russo wrote in his positive NY Times’ review of Monogamy, if Monogamy were a photograph it would belong in an art gallery not on Instagram:
Monogamy may not be everyone’s cup of tea. If you’re looking for spare, show-don’t-tell narration, brisk pacing and snappy dialogue spoken by easily comprehended characters, look elsewhere. There’s a lot of very good TV that operates on these principles. Miller operates differently, and the result is an old-fashioned, slow burn of a novel that allows readers to dream deeply.
Miller’s characters feel so real, so complex and relatable, past hurts bubbling up to the surface, trying to make the best of the life they were given. And joy, there’s a lot of joy in this book, joy amidst the sadness.
As an aside, Miller, who didn’t publish a book until the age of 43, attended Radcliffe’s Bunting Institute, the topic of my last Q&A with Maggie Doherty and her book The Equivalents. (How I love my Google fact-finding missions)
Monogamy centers on the longstanding happy marriage between Annie and Graham, who live in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Graham, a larger than life, passionate character in every way, dies of a heart attack in the middle of the night (and early on in the novel- so no spoiler alert needed) While Graham may be dead, he looms large in the story. He was at the center of everyone’s life – Annie, Graham’s first wife Frieda, who never stopped loving him, their son Lucas, and Sarah, Graham and Annie’s daughter. Chapters assume a point of view from each of these people, but mostly we hear from Annie whose world is derailed first by Graham’s death, and then later by her discovery of his infidelity.
Packed with psychological insights, never patronizing or dull, Monogamy touches on several universal themes. Love, loss, grief, infidelity, ageing, memory, acceptance and identity. Below is my Q&A with Miller:
Graham says that people read fiction “because it suggests life has a shape, and we feel … consoled … Consoled to think that life isn’t just one damn thing after another… that fiction pushed away the meaninglessness of death.” Do you believe that? Is that one of the reasons why you write novels?”
I think all art is an attempt to make meaning, even if its maker is unsure of what that meaning is, or is incapable of doing anything but approximating it in the forms available to her.
In talking to Sarah about love, Frieda said “Love isn’t just what two people have together, it’s what two people make together”. Can you expand on that and how that relates to Annie and Graham’s love?
When Annie is thinking about the crazy, hectic day coming up for her — the Friday that will follow the long Thursday I’ve been tracing through in the first 86 pages of the novel — this is what her consideration ends with: “If she had to pick a central element to their marriage, it might be this. More than their general compatibility, more than their child or their shared sense of humor — this. This nexus, this web: the parties, the bookstore, the food, the friends. Occasionally still, the sex.”
This is a shared life, then, a kind of joint project that happens easily for Annie and Graham, since they both find the elements she’s conjuring of central importance. So, certainly they have made this life — this version of love — jointly. But the ease and the pleasure in this life, and in their love, is at least partly the result of their having had these interests before they met too, so that neither of them has to strain to accommodate the other in an effort, a project, he or she has little interest in. This is the element of luck in their marriage, this deep compatibility. There are moments, of course, when their interests diverge — for instance when Annie wants to move to New York and Graham won’t even entertain the notion — but their love acts as a buffer then, and is, finally, the reason to return to what they have made together.
You mention the healing power of music a few times, with Annie and Frieda. Both women strive for a sense of beauty or loveliness in their lives, something that music provides. Can you expand on this?
It has always struck me – struck me with envy – that music is the most directly felt of all the arts. And that the people I know who are gifted musically have immediate access to that feeling and its expression. Surely there are some tormented, grumpy people with music as a central element in their lives, but the musically gifted people I know seem simply happier in their art than other creative folks. To make people feel something fictionally is so much more laborious, so much more distanced from the instant response that music makes possible … ah!
You can read the rest of my interview with Miller here on 26, a site to promote the love of words, in business and in life.