“You can get used to anything. It’s one of the most necessary things life teaches us.”
In the setting of a New England college town in 1993, newlyweds Meri and Nathan Fowler noisily inhabit the other half of a stately old home owned by Delia Naughton, wife of former senator Tom Naughton. Upon their first meeting, Meri senses that Delia may teach her something about how to navigate a confusing world.
For his part, Nathan is curious about the senator, anxious to meet him and disappointed to learn he only visits sporadically. On the one occasion the couple does meet Tom, the Fowlers are in awe of the old gentleman’s charisma, a natural charm that elicits the attention of everyone in the room.
Generationally, the side-by-side households are in sharp contrast. Delia’s is a well-ordered, contained life, including periodic travel to visit her children and spend time in a Paris apartment. Meri’s discovery of pregnancy upsets the Fowler’s expectations, caught by surprise, Meri’s body changing drastically to accommodate the birth, affecting as well the couple’s comfort level with one another.
The bonding Meri expected with Delia fails to occur. The women are more neighborly friends than confidantes, Delia long accustomed to deflecting intrusive questions about her personal life. But Meri’s curiosity is insatiable and inappropriate; she uses the quiet afternoons when Delia is away to poke into private papers, rationalizing her actions even as she is flooded with guilt (“Meri, with that slightly evasive, sly quality she had”).
Yet pry she will, although thankfully Meri keeps her secrets to herself. Ironically, one thinks of Meri as young, for she acts immature, impulsive. Actually she is thirty-six, old enough to be more circumspect in her behavior. But Meri is oddly self-involved, absorbed in the grotesquery of pregnancy and the demands of new motherhood.
As the Fowlers’ home is rocked by the incessant demands of a wailing infant, so is Delia’s world altered once more by the unpredictable. Her relationship with Tom takes on another incarnation, perhaps a small reward for all of Delia’s years of surviving her shattered dreams.
More than anything, Miller’s novel is generational and female-centered, focusing on Delia’s long history of marriage and motherhood to a charismatic politician who is incapable of fidelity but loves her dearly. Her time spent on the needs of family, Delia accepts her role unquestioningly. In contrast, Meri battles the demands placed on her time, needing the outside world as well, careless of the precarious marital structures of women such as Delia.
This is a novel of women, love, marriage and betrayal, the emotional tightrope of a damaged marriage, where a wife’s love transcends expectations and the insensitivity of a younger woman who cannot appreciate the intricacies or attrition of love and marriage. Miller goes to the heart of the matter, revealing her female protagonists’ darkest secrets and self-doubts, the small validations and inconstancies of daily life and how one woman’s moment of selfishness can reduce another’s contentment to ashes.