Sue Miller’s narratives have a prismatic quality. She often presents characters from multiple vantage points, portraying them as others see them. In “Monogamy,” an absorbing and meticulously crafted page-turner, she’s interested in how love, loss, and the accretion of wisdom can shift those angles of vision.
At the heart of “Monogamy” is the marriage between Annie, a photographer, and Graham, a big, Rabelaisian bear of a man who co-owns a bookstore in Harvard Square. Miller dissects their union and its tragic aftermath with both deep sympathy and forensic detachment.
The life of many parties, Graham is a charismatic but flawed figure — garrulous, generous, loving, but also needy and entitled. Marital fidelity is a challenge that he can’t quite master. It doesn’t help that he came of age in the Cambridge of the 1960s and ’70s, when monogamy was considered a straitjacket and sexual experimentation widely endorsed.
The novel’s intricate third-person narrative alternately channels Annie and Graham, before expanding to include the perspectives of Graham’s two children and his first wife, Frieda. Close friends and lovers, past and present, figure in the story, too. Miller uses the device of memory — sometimes recovered, often unreliable — to shift time, propelling flashbacks that fill in her characters’ backstories.
We learn that Graham’s first marriage was a casualty of his pursuing a series of affairs. His wife had signed on to the idea of an open marriage. But her enthusiasm for extramarital adventures waned quickly. Graham, by contrast, transformed himself from geek to playboy and indulged in the sexual bounty of the era. Frieda, increasingly heartbroken and unable to negotiate for change, walks out with their son, Lucas, leaving Graham shocked and regretful.
Perhaps, by the time he encounters Annie, seven years out of her own first marriage, he has learned a lesson. In any case, Annie is more of a free spirit than Frieda. When she meets Graham at a party celebrating the bookstore’s opening, she is fresh off an afternoon of casual sex, and she’s had lovers whose names she can’t even recall.
Annie has seen Graham around Harvard Square and envied “his liveliness … his easy sociability.” At the bookstore, their attraction, punctuated by spilled wine, is immediate and overwhelming. Their eventual marriage, which produces a daughter, Sarah, is marked by sexual compatibility and the mutual enjoyment of friends, food, and conversation. “My mother holds it all in, my father lets it out,” Sarah tells her boyfriend, Thomas, in describing the pairing.
Much as he adores Annie, Graham can’t overcome his propensity to wander. This time he doesn’t ask permission to stray. “He’s not honest,” Miller writes. “He wants too much for everyone to like him to be honest.”
But in his carelessness and self-absorption, he does confess one transgression to Frieda, to whom he has stayed close. Though bound by the “deep, unresolved attachment between them,” she has become Annie’s friend as well.
Too soon, early in the novel, a heart attack cuts short Graham’s life with Annie — and all the others, family and friends, to whom he was so central. Each will grieve in a distinct way, Annie most of all. As she mourns, she experiences an “almost daily fear of losing him further, in memory …” Then, worse yet: She accidentally discovers that her late husband is not entirely who she believed him to be. Her grief becomes complicated, sorrow tainted by rage.
Miller’s subject is not just grief or marriage, though she delves profoundly into both. She’s also intrigued by the mystery of human personality, shaped by the past, but sometimes able to transcend it.
Photography — along with other forms of art, including fiction and music — provides her with a metaphorical template. As a photographer, Annie has come to prefer images of spaces devoid of people — “to see them differently,” Miller writes, “to imagine them differently through their absence.” That task prefigures the challenge she’ll face in grieving Graham.
Later, Miller has Annie abandon digital photography for film, so she can once again develop her own images and relish “the control you had … over the way you saw things and wanted to remember them.” Memory, it turns out, can be malleable, a tool to heal grief.
At one point, Sarah, pondering her own future, will describe marriage as consisting of “[t]he wounds inflicted, back and forth, the inevitable disappointments, the unbridgeable distances.” Miller’s own view seems more forgiving. She depicts both her characters and their Cambridge environs with such tenderness and precision that many readers will feel regret when Miller’s story, like life itself, reaches its inevitable end.
Julia M. Klein, a cultural reporter and critic in Philadelphia, has been a two-time finalist for the National Book Critics Circle’s Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing. Follow her on Twitter @JuliaMKlein.
By Sue Miller
Harper, 352 pages, $28.99