Good Mother (Miller)

The Good Mother
Sue Miller, 1986
320 pp.
ISBN-13: 9780060505936

Recently divorced, Anna Dunlap has two passionate attachments: her daughter, four-year-old Molly, and her lover, Leo, the man who makes her feel beautiful — and sexual — for the first time. Swept away by happiness and passion, Anna feels she has everything she's ever wanted. Then come the shocking charges that would threaten her new love, her new "family"...that force her to prove she is a good mother.

The book was adapted to film in 1988, starring Diane Keaton and Liam Neeson. (From the publisher.)

Author Bio
Birth—November 29, 1943
Where—Chicago, Illinois, USA
Education—B.A., Radcliffe College
Currently—lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts

Since her iconic first novel, The Good Mother in 1986, Sue Miller has distinguished herself as one of our most elegant and widely celebrated chroniclers of family life, with a singular gift for laying bare the interior lives of her characters.

While not strictly speaking autobiographical, Miller's fiction is, nonetheless, shaped by her experiences. Born into an academic and ecclesiastical family, she grew up in Chicago's Hyde Park and went to college at Harvard. She was married at 20 and held down a series of odd jobs until her son Ben was born in 1968. She separated from her first husband in 1971, subsequently divorced, and for 13 years was a single parent in Cambridge, Massachusetts, working in day care, taking in roomers, and writing whenever she could.

In these early years, Miller's productivity was directly proportional to her ability to win grants and fellowships. An endowment in 1979 allowed her to enroll in the Creative Writing Program at Boston University. A few of her stories were accepted for publication, and she began teaching in the Boston area. Two additional grants in the 1980s enabled her to concentrate on writing fulltime. Published in 1986, her first novel became an international bestseller.

Since then, success has followed success. Two of Miller's books (The Good Mother and Inventing the Abbots) have been made into feature films; her 1990 novel Family Pictures was nominated for a National Book Critics Circle Award; Oprah Winfrey selected While I Was Gone for her popular Book Club; and in 2004, a first foray into nonfiction—the poignant, intensely personal memoir The Story of My Father—was widely praised for its narrative eloquence and character dramatization. The Senator's Wife was published in 2008, followed by The Lake Shore Limited in 2010 and The Arsonist in 2014.

Miller is a distinguished practitioner of "domestic fiction," a time-honored genre stretching back to Jane Austen, Henry James, and Leo Tolstoy and honed to perfection by such modern literary luminaries as John Updike, Flannery O'Connor, and Richard Ford.

A careful observer of quotidian detail, she stretches her novels across the canvas of home and hearth, creating extraordinary stories out of the quiet intimacies of marriage, family, and friendship. In an article written for the New York Times "Writers on Writing" series, she explains:

For me everyday life in the hands of a fine writer seems...charged with meaning. When I write, I want to bring a sense of that charge, that meaning, to what may fairly be called the domestic.

From a 2008 Barnes & Noble interview:

• I come from a long line of clergy. My father was an ordained minister in the Presbyterian church, though as I grew up, he was primarily an academic at several seminaries — the University of Chicago, and then Princeton. Both my grandfathers were also ministers, and their fathers too. It goes back farther than that in a more sporadic way.

• I spent a year working as a cocktail waitress in a seedy bar just outside New Haven, Connecticut. Think high heels, mesh tights, and the concentrated smell of nicotine. Think of the possible connections of this fact to the first fact, above.

• I like northern California, where we've had a second home we're selling—it's just too far away from Boston. I've had a garden there that has been a delight to create, as the plants are so different from those in New England, which is where I've done most of my gardening. I had to read up on them. I studied Italian gardens too—the weather is very Mediterranean. I like weeding—it's almost a form of meditation.

• I like little children. I loved working in daycare and talking to kids, learning how they form their ideas about the world's workings—always intriguing, often funny. I try to have little children in my life, always.

• I want to make time to take piano lessons again. I did it for a while as an adult and enjoyed it.

• I like to cook and to have people over. I love talking with people over good food and wine. Conversation — it's one of life's deepest pleasures.

• When asked what book most influenced her life, here is her response:

In terms of prose style or a particular way of telling a story or a story itself, there is no one book that I can select. At various times I've admired and been inspired by various books. But there is a book that made the notion of making a life in writing seem possible to me when I was about 22. It was called The Origin of the Brunists.

I opened the newspaper on a Sunday to the Book Review, and there it was, a rave, for this first novel, written by a man named Robert Coover—a man still writing, though he's more famous for later, more experimental works. The important thing about this to me, aside from the fact that the book turned out to be extraordinary and compelling (it's about a cult that springs up around the lone survivor of a coal mining disaster, Giovanni Bruno), was that I knew Robert Coover. He had rented a room in my family's house when I was growing up and while he was a graduate student at the University of Chicago, where my father taught.

Bob Coover, whose conversations with friends drifted up through the heating ducts from his basement room to mine. Bob Coover, a seemingly normal person, a person whose life I'd observed from my peculiar adolescent vantage for perhaps three years or so as he came and went. It was thrilling to me to understand that such a person, a person not unlike myself, a person not somehow marked as "special" as far as I could tell, could become a writer. If he could, well then, maybe I could. (Author bio from Barnes & Noble.)

Book Reviews
(This book was published before the prevalence of the Internet, so there are few online reviews available from mainstream press.)

What makes the book truly remarkable is its of the great pleasures of The Good Mother comes...from the author's skillfull rendition of...the common questions of motherhood. I think virtually no one has done it better.
Linda Wolf - New York Times Book Review

This powerful proves as subtle as it is dramatic, as durable — in its emotional afterlife — as it is instantly readable.
Michiko Kakutani - New York Times

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