“I don’t want you here, and I don’t want to talk to you. I don’t want to hear any of the understanding things you’re going to say.”
Monogamy, by Sue Miller, explores many aspects of marriage and family life. It tells the story of a middle aged couple who live in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Graham co-owns and runs a bookshop. Annie is a photographer. They have one child, Sarah, who Annie has never quite understood. Graham also has a child, Lucas, from his first marriage, to Frieda. Frieda left Graham because he wouldn’t stop having affairs. Neither has he been faithful to Annie, although she is unaware of this until after he dies.
The tale is built around these bare bones: how Annie and Graham get together, issues with their children as they grow towards independence, the continuing presence of Frieda in their lives, coping with the death of a loved one.
Graham and Annie have many friends and a lively social life. Parties at their home are a regular occurrence. The cast of characters introduced is large. Several times I had to look back to work out connections when a person reappeared in the narrative.
What gradually unfolds has, however, a deeper resonance. Marriage, parenthood, affairs, death – all are dissected and assessed forensically but through a warmly empathetic lens. There is a refreshing honesty in reactions. The family may be close and loving but many resentments fester. Each guards their inner thoughts – to avoid personal scrutiny or in an attempt to protect the feelings of those who will nevertheless interpret how they believe they are seen.
Growing up, Sarah adored Graham and found Annie cold. She felt shut out from her parents’ closeness. Lucas resented the sacrifices Frieda made for him, feeling in debt for something not asked for. Although they got on well, both children envied the familial setup the other had.
Emotional responses to events are skilfully portrayed through conversations and descriptions of time spent alone. Not everything can be fixed, however well meaning a friend or relative may be. Moments of clarity occur when a character sees for the first time how they are regarded by others, especially by those they care for.
“we read fiction because it suggests that life has a shape – that life isn’t just one damned thing after another”
The structure and pacing work well in moving the plot along but the strength of the story is in the character development. Each of the key players have their flaws and these are presented openly and as a part of what makes them what they are.
As an aside, it is always interesting to learn from books. I had no idea that some younger men may expect women to keep their private parts hair free because this is what they see in pornographic imagery and believe it is normal. Older men, when they encounter this trend in a lover, may be reminded of their young daughters – a deeply disturbing thought.
Graham’s appetites are presented as just how he is. It is what draws women to him and then how he causes them so much hurt when he is not sated, as they are. Frieda could not cope with the way he wanted to live, yet never managed to move out of his orbit. That Annie accepted Frieda’s close presence in their family setup may seem strange but adds an interesting dimension.
The denouement moves each family member forward through time, passing as it does. There is a rebalancing – the children’s lives expanding as their parents’ contract. This evolution and its effects was portrayed with aplomb.
In many ways an unusual read for me but one I got a good deal from. It is always interesting to consider how little we truly know even those we are close to, but how we can choose to love and mostly get along with them anyway.
Monogamy is published by Bloomsbury.