Wednesday, March 26, 2008

The Distinguished Guest by Sue Miller

Book Review by Zinta Aistars

· Paperback: 272 pages
· Publisher: Harper Perennial, 1999
· Price: $13.00
· ISBN-10: 0060930004
· ISBN-13: 978-0060930004

The Distinguished Guest was my first, no doubt too long in coming, dip into the work of bestselling author, Sue Miller. Within the first few pages, indeed, first few lines, I had to wonder what had taken me so long to make this discovery for myself. Here was a literary talent, wide and deep, for the discerning reader. The pages turned if not with great speed, then certainly relish, in the manner that one approaches a gourmet meal rather than a buffet.

The novel centers around aging writer, Lily Maynard, having achieved literary fame in her 70s with her frank memoirs of a failed marriage to a priest, along with riveting fiction that explored racial issues. Lily has Parkinson’s disease, and we witness how her faculties fail her as her short but bright writing career comes to an end. Her memory no longer holds the threads of plot and storyline, her mind wanders, her hands can no longer hold a pen. She takes up residence at her son’s home, what is to be a temporary stay while awaiting an opening at a nursing home, but becomes her final residence. We learn about her through her interactions, strained as they can be, with her son and daughter-in-law, through an on-going interview with a journalist, and various other characters, casual or scholarly, that come in and out of her life in her final days.

All of which are fascinating, and Miller here shows herself to be a master of walking the literary tightrope with admirable balance. Never too much, never too little, always dead center, straight up and on target. Miller understands the concept of “less is more” and uses it to best advantage. Some of Miller’s best writing, in fact, I found to be her voice coming through Lily’s:

“In those summer Sundays of our new marriage, I could sometimes experience the hour or so in church as a kind of drug, a near-aphrodisiac really. All my senses were dilated by it, by the gradual and powerful accumulation of layers of physical awareness combined with my own spiritual hunger, my greed, really. The Midwest heat outside was always intense by eleven o’clock, and the dark little church was cool and damp by contrast. When you entered the doors, there was a long, dizzying moment of welcome blindness, accompanied, for me, by a near-sexual weakening in my legs. The air inside smelled deliciously of mildew, a mushroomy, earthy odor that changed slowly as the space filled up with people…

“I always arrived early because I couldn’t bear the idea of the eyes of the congregation on me as I walked to my place alone. The young minister’s new wife…”

Miller guides us with expertise to see the subtle nuances of young growing old, of the slow and frustrating, almost shameful, ravages of disease, of the disconnect between family members, of the limitations of pride, and the sly cruelties between mother and son, and those, too, between husband and wife. Here is family like most families, with truths being hidden and half-hidden, games played and unwound, mild flirtations that hint of ruination, yet hold back just in time. It is as if almost nothing happens—only everything does.

Even the conclusion of this story is laced with nuance, as life often is, so that it can be seen both as tragic and yet right, if one steps just to one side of it. There is good and bad and all the shades between in all that is life and all that is death.

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