Miller, Sue 1943-

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MILLER, Sue 1943-

PERSONAL: Born November 29, 1943; daughter of James Hastings (a minister and educator) and Judith (Beach) Nichols; married (divorced, 1971); married Doug Bauer (a writer), 1985 (divorced); children: (first marriage) Ben. Education: Radcliffe College, B.A., 1964; master's degrees from Harvard University, Boston University, and Wesleyan University.

ADDRESSES: Home—Cambridge, MA. Agent— Maxine Groffsky, Maxine Groffsky Literary Agency, 853 Broadway, Suite 708, New York, NY 10003.

CAREER: Novelist and author of short fiction. Teacher of creative writing courses at universities. Worked variously as a day-care worker, high school teacher, waitress, model, and researcher.

MEMBER: PEN New England Center.

AWARDS, HONORS: Boston University creative writing fellowship, 1979; Pushcart Press honorable mention, 1984; National Book Critics Circle Award nomination, 1991, for Family Pictures; Bunting

Institute fellowship, Radcliffe College; grant from Massachusetts Artists Foundation; MacDowell fellowship; Guggenheim fellowship.


The Good Mother, Harper (New York, NY), 1986.

Inventing the Abbotts, and Other Stories (includes "Leaving Home" and "Appropriate Affect"), Harper (New York, NY), 1987.

Family Pictures, Harper (New York, NY), 1990.

For Love, Harper (New York, NY), 1993.

The Distinguished Guest, Harper (New York, NY), 1995.

While I Was Gone, Knopf (New York, NY), 1999.

The World Below, Knopf (New York, NY), 2001.

The Story of My Father (nonfiction), Knopf (New York, NY), 2003.

Contributor of short stories to periodicals, including Atlantic, Mademoiselle, and Ploughshares.

ADAPTATIONS: The Good Mother was adapted for film by Michael Bortman, directed by Leonard Nimoy, starring Diane Keaton and Liam Neeson, Buena Vista, 1988; Family Pictures was adapted for television by Jennifer Miller, directed by Philip Saville, starring Anjelica Huston and Sam Neill, 1993; Inventing the Abbotts was adapted for film by Ken Hixon, directed by Pat O'Connor, Twentieth Century-Fox, 1997.

SIDELIGHTS: Sue Miller earned considerable critical acclaim with her first published novel, The Good Mother. That story, which was adapted into a major motion picture, concerns a single mother whose relationship with an unmarried man threatens her right to custody of her child. Miller has written several other novels, including For Love, The Distinguished Guest, While I Was Gone, and The World Below. Her work is united by a concern with identity and how it is formed. She commented on this to Ron Fletcher in a BookPage online interview: "With each work I feel I'm playing around with the idea of self. . . . To what degree is the self something we will? To what extent is it shaped by circumstance? These questions make for fascinating exploration." Fletcher noted that Miller's works "address the grand issues of sin and forgiveness through a careful, nuanced consideration of the quotidian."

The daughter of a minister, Miller grew up in a boisterous family of five in Chicago. She was a precocious student who entered Radcliffe College at the age of sixteen and graduated with a bachelor's degree in 1964. Not long after, she married a medical student who later became a psychiatrist. The marriage produced one child, Ben, before Miller and her husband went their separate ways. While raising her child as a solo parent during the 1970s, Miller taught preschool children at the Harvard Day Care Centers, a position that she later found invaluable for her fiction-writing. She was in her mid-thirties before she began publishing short stories and writing novels, and in 1979 she earned a fellowship to Boston University. "They paid me almost as much as I had been making working in daycare," Miller recalled in the Writer. A second fellowship the following year enabled Miller to practice her craft enough to eventually produce The Good Mother.

The Good Mother is the saga of a divorced woman embroiled in a custody battle rooted in the woman's lover's alleged improper sexual contact with her daughter. At the story's beginning, narrator Anna Dunlap realizes her dissatisfaction with her role as a dutiful wife and extricates herself from an apathetic marriage. She then attempts to create a new life for herself and her four-year-old daughter, Molly. With this move, Anna hopes to focus on self-fulfillment and continue to build an open, loving relationship with her daughter. Soon she meets Leo, a sculptor, and embarks upon a fervent love affair that offers the passion and spontaneity her marriage lacked. The relationship progresses and Leo becomes a fixture in the household, even helping to care for Molly. Anna's domestic bliss is shattered, however, when her ex-husband serves court papers citing an improper relationship—with sexual overtones—between Molly and Leo and charging Anna with negligence.

The remainder of The Good Mother addresses the trial and its outcome. Crediting Miller's rendering of suspense, USA Today correspondent Robert Wilson noted that she "makes the court case both dramatic and convincing, and effectively interweaves the impersonal legal machinations with the almost devastatingly intense emotions Anna feels for Molly and Leo." In the book Anna explains her alleged negligence to the court-appointed social worker: "I was very caught up in my feelings about Leo, and I just didn't give enough thought to Molly, to what might be confusing or difficult for her in all of it." Ultimately Anna loses custody of Molly, but earns her title as a "good mother" by accepting the painful ruling for the sake of her child's well-being. In a Publishers Weekly interview, Miller commented that Anna is "a person who thought she could make her life like someone else's, who thought she could be in control of her life. And that seems to me to be a false thing to believe in this world."

Appraising The Good Mother for the New York Times Book Review, Linda Wolfe asserted, "Every once in a while, a first novelist rockets into the literary atmosphere with a novel so accomplished that it shatters the common assumption that for a writer to have mastery, he or she must serve a long, auspicious apprenticeship." Publishers Weekly contributor Rosemary Herbert lauded Miller's rendition of scenes of daily life, calling her "an extraordinarily accomplished writer who is particularly skilled in the use of visual images and homey detail." Likewise, Booklist reviewer Brad Hooper observed: "The domestic scene is Miller's terrain, a place where steadiness is hoped for by all parties involved but where earthquakes are bound to come along and disassemble the landscape." New York Times contributor Michiko Kakutani deemed the work "a remarkably assured first novel" and added: "Thanks to Sue Miller's gift for precise psychological detail, her sure sense of narrative and her simple compassion for ordinary lives, this powerful novel proves as subtle as it is dramatic, as durable—in its emotional afterlife—as it is instantly readable." The reading public concurred, keeping The Good Mother on best-seller lists for over six months.

A few critics, however, charged Miller with needlessly making her protagonist a victim, and took exception to the plot twist that has Anna betray Leo by agreeing with the court that he acted irresponsibly with Molly. Confronting these criticisms, Josephine Humphreys stated in her Nation review that "because . . . Anna is, in the end, human rather than heroic, the novel is all the more disturbing and powerful." Miller, however, stated that she views Anna as a heroic character. She told Beth Austin of the Chicago Tribune that with The Good Mother "I was trying . . . to establish what I regard as a very female notion of heroism and, I think, a very feminist notion of heroism." Miller noted that her character's choices may be more valiant than what she believes is the typical male response of fighting despite the consequences. Anna realized how her battle might adversely effect her daughter and instead chose to protect her child from that emotional trauma.

Miller followed The Good Mother with a collection of short fiction titled Inventing the Abbotts, and Other Stories. Ellen Lesser, in her Village Voice review of the book, stated: "The new volume demonstrates that Miller doesn't need the breadth of a novel to chart the complex and confusing topography of families after divorce." In the story "Leaving Home" Leah, a divorced mother, realizes that the behavior she prompted from her son while he was growing up corresponds to his present problem of standing up to his wife. Observing his marital problems, she regrets that her son no longer turns to her for advice. "Appropriate Affect" documents a quiet grandmother with a sad, sweet smile who turns surly after suffering a stroke. This unexpected—though truthful—behavior drives her family away. In the title piece, Doug narrates his older brother Jacey's romantic liaisons with three sisters from a higher socio-economic class in a dull Midwestern town. In this story, noted Times Literary Supplement reviewer Roz Kaveney, "Miller writes with genuine power."

Miller's novel Family Pictures also proved to be a best-seller. Using third-person narration, the author chronicles the history of an upper-middle-class family living in Chicago from the end of World War II to the mid-1980s. Family Pictures concerns David and Lainey Eberhardt and their six children. The couple's early marital happiness is tested after learning that their third child, Randall, is autistic. David, a psychiatrist, sides with other experts in the medical field to blame Lainey for her son's autism, citing some form of subconscious rejection. Lainey feels betrayed by her husband's charges but subdues her anger. Instead, in an attempt to prove Randall's autism is not her fault, she bears three more healthy children against David's wishes. In the rest of the novel, Miller shows how Randall defines the family and how the directions of the other family members is altered because of his plight.

Several critics were fascinated with Miller's Family Pictures and lavish with their praise. Michael Dorris, writing in the Detroit News, judged that the novel "is packed with . . . moments of wisdom and insight, and suffused with terrific writing." Dorris added: "Family Pictures is rich with complexity and paradox. It makes no easy judgments of right and wrong about its embattled protagonists." In his New York Times review, Christopher Lehmann-Haupt declared: "Miller is particularly good at dramatizing scenes of domestic chaos and the complex interplay of adults and children. . . . Each child, each of the family members, is wounded by the presence of Randall in a different way. Yet the reader is irresistibly drawn through their pain by the author's exquisite eye for psychological detail and sexual nuance, and also by her method of keeping the narrative slowed down in that way that suggests something explosive is about to happen."

Praising the author's adept handling of several narrative shifts in Family Pictures, Chicago Tribune contributor Anne Tyler noted that "in tone it is absolutely flawless. It captures perfectly the sass and grit of family life." In a New York Times Book Review article, Jane Smiley described Family Pictures as "profoundly honest, shapely, ambitious, engrossing, original and true, an important example of a new American tradition that explores what it means . . . to make a home, live at home and learn what home is."

Miller's novel For Love explores the complexity of emotion faced by a woman approaching her middle years. In her youth, protagonist Lottie Gardner specialized in reinventing herself—changing her name from Char to Charlotte to Lottie, marrying and divorcing and marrying again. In her forties, Lottie realizes that through "the many lenses of her life: daughter, sister, mother, lover and wife" she must continually try "to understand the rules of love, even as they appear to be changing," according to Ron Carlson in the New York Times Book Review. Carlson maintained that Miller writes with the kind of realism "that takes us by the shoulders and says, 'Look at this!'" Similarly, Chicago Tribune critic Madison Smartt Bell praised Miller for a body of work that is "remarkably free of politically motivated distortion. She is in no sense an ideologue but a strong believer in reality." Bell, however, added that the realism in For Love is marred by the lack of a central plot point. Calling the novel "cloudy and hard to grasp," Gail Pool in Women's Review of Books similarly saw insufficient power in Lottie's character to carry a whole novel. Still, Pool admitted, For Love, "despite its problems, is a very readable book, largely because Miller is a good storyteller."

Examining private conflicts in a public forum sets the stage for Miller's fourth novel, The Distinguished Guest. The title character is Lily Maynard—in her eighties, frail, and ill, but with her detailed, and perhaps embellishing, memory intact. Ten years before the start of the narrative, Lily has authored a feminist best-seller based on her marriage to a 1960s civil rights activist. Now divorced, debilitated, and estranged from her two eldest children, she takes refuge in the home of her resentful youngest, Alan, and his family. Alan and his wife, Gaby, have only begun to work out their own marital difficulties; the presence of Lily only exacerbates the tension. The small circle is joined by a journalist, Linnett, who has arrived to write Lily's life story for a magazine. In relating her life to Linnett, Lily dredges up all manner of family conflict. It is in the character of Linnett that Miller—so often lauded for her realistic portrayals—hits a false note, in the view of Kakutani. Writing in the New York Times, Kakutani opined that the author's creation of Linnett "must surely rank as one of the more unbelievable depictions of a journalist to appear in a novel in a long time." Kakutani also faulted the novel for diluting the "portrait of a mother and her middle-aged son with lots of extraneous talk about race relations and middle-class guilt." "Where Miller fumbles a bit is in her effort to plop the issue of racism into her characters' hands," concurred Detroit Free Press correspondent Susan Hall-Balduf. The author, the contributor continued, "doesn't speak plainly of the issue until she brings in the book's only black character." But the parallels drawn between the conflict between the races, and the conflicts within a single family, are just what critic Roxana Robinson found compelling. In her Los Angeles Times Book Review article, Robinson noted that both issues "are complex and highly charged, both provoke public debate and private anguish. Both raise the question of personal debt: what one owes, and is owed." To Robinson The Distinguished Guest presents "no simple resolutions to these conflicts between idealism and realism, parent and child, black and white. But Miller's compassionate narrative explores the problems and reveals the possibilities for change."

One powerful moment in the novel was noted by several reviewers. In this scene, a dinner-table discussion reveals Lily's offhanded cruelty when, in the presence of Alan and his grown son, the matriarch says, "There's no surer or shorter route to heartbreak than having high expectations for your children." This remark, Chicago Tribune critic Penelope Mesic averred, "amounts to indicting Alan both as an overfond parent and a failure himself." "The various responses . . . form a sort of paradigm for the novel's larger construction," wrote Richard Bausch in his New York Times Book Review assessment. "We move through the moment, and its aftermath, with all sorts of insights that lend weight and richness to what glides by on the surface."

Overall, Miller's fourth novel was well received for its gripping—if unsettling—take on the strained dynamics between adult children and their aging parents. Praising the author's ability to avoid "flattering" her audience, Mesic summarized that reading The Distinguished Guest is "a rueful pleasure—akin to poking a sore tooth with an exploratory tongue, or trying on clothes, fearing they're unflattering from behind, and backing up to a three-fold mirror. In such cases the best we can feel is that we know the worst." The Distinguished Guest, concluded Bausch, "is a very moving book about—and for—grown-ups who are willing to consider, with honesty and intelligence, some unavoidable grown-up predicaments."

Miller commented to Writer's interviewer, Lewis Burke Frumkes that While I Was Gone, "is an odd book in the sense that it's talking about fidelity and infidelity and yet an infidelity does not quite occur." Narrator Jo Becker is a veterinarian, married to a minister, and the mother of three grown daughters. All appearances indicate that Jo is happy and successful, but she has begun to chafe at the complacency and predictability of her existence. The predictability is shattered when an old friend, Eli Mayhew, arrives at Jo's office with a pet in need of care. Her re-acquaintance with Eli reminds Jo of an idyllic year she spent in a communal house in Cambridge, a brief interlude that ended with the brutal murder of the commune's other female resident. As she is drawn to Eli, Jo revisits the past, and Eli's revelations about the murder bring moral dilemma and emotional turmoil to Jo and her family. New York Times Book Review contributor Jay Parini wrote of Miller: "Through a collection of stories and a string of novels, she has used her fiction to explore the artificially tamed emotional wilderness inhabited by husbands and wives. Her novel While I Was Gone continues this preoccupation. A painstaking meditation on marital fidelity, it swoops gracefully between the past and the present, between a woman's complex feelings about her husband and her equally complex fantasies—and fears—about another man."

A Publishers Weekly reviewer wrote of While I Was Gone that Miller's "narrative is a beautifully textured picture of the psychological tug of war between finding integrity as an individual and satisfying the demands of spouse, children and community." The reviewer further stated that Miller "renders the details of quotidian domesticity with bedrock veracity and a sensitivity to minute calibrations of family dynamics." In Newsday, Dan Cryer remarked: "Scene after Miller scene is an artfully staged minidrama of those painful or delightful moments that reveal humanity in all its awkward, muddled splendor." Cryer deemed the book "gripping, close-to-the-bone fiction." Lehmann Haupt, in his New York Times piece on While I Was Gone, suggested that Miller "has once again taken a morally extreme position and made it seem both plausible and questionable, as she has done often in her previous fiction." The reviewer added: "Miller does many things well in this novel. She shows a deep respect for all her characters. . . . The narrative pacing is masterly, building tension even in its most psychologically subtle passages. The story is at once so well made and vividly imagined that one might call it an exercise in spontaneous craftsmanship."

In The World Below, Miller presents a woman who is struggling with her own past and also that of her grandmother. Fifty-two-year-old Cath Hubbard is trying to heal after the dissolution of her second marriage. Her children are grown and gone, and she retreats to a home in Vermont that was owned by her grandparents, hoping to find solace there. In the attic, Cath discovers a diary written by her grandmother, Georgia. She learns that while still a child, Georgia had to take responsibility for running her family's household, after her mother passed away. Exhaustion was mis-diagnosed as tuberculosis, and Georgia was then sent to a sanitarium, where she fell in love with a terminally ill patient. After his death, she eventually married the doctor who becomes Cath's grandfather. The story takes in the lives of Georgia, Cath, and many other people who have touched them along the way, including the elderly tenant of the Vermont house, whom Cath displaces.

"Miller takes us on a guided tour of the workings of these two women, and we could hardly be in better hands. We slip effortlessly from one life to the other, and she makes us understand her subjects as few writers can. They reveal themselves as people who come to be in our lives actually do, a bit at a time, sometimes by declaration, sometimes by act, sometimes by nuance," related Leo Irwin in the Wilmington, Delaware, News Journal. "Miller's prose is dazzling, both economical and elegant, and her observations, whether they're through Cath's eyes or Georgia's, are often moving and unexpectedly profound," the critic added, concluding: "The World Below ultimately is filled with life, and just like life, it exposes us to sobering choices, unexpected pleasures and rich rewards."

Acknowledging that her books do concern family matters, Miller told Getta Sharma Jensen of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that she considers it inaccurate to say she writes only about family and relationships. She pointed out that The World Below is also a story about tuberculosis and the peculiar subculture of tuberculosis sanitariums that sprang up around the disease. The story of the civil rights movement is crucial to her novel The Distinguished Guest, and in The Good Mother, the author stated, she was writing not only of family dynamics but also how "the legal system fails us," Sharma quoted Miller as saying. Miller added: "I think that aspect of my work is never discussed. I think it's because I'm a woman, frankly. There are many male writers who write about family and marriage over and over again—and yet no one says they write only about family. Practically every writer writes about family. It's not anything unique."

Miller's own life did provide the background for her first nonfiction book, The Story of My Father: A Memoir. While the volume contains a personal recollection of her father, its larger theme is what happens during the course of Alzheimer's disease, and how those events affect the relationships between parents and children. Miller relates that her own father was a brilliant man, a former dean of the Princeton Theological Seminary, as well as a kind, caring, and perceptive person. Her first clue that he was suffering from Alzheimer's disease came when she received a late-night phone call informing her that her father had been picked up in Massachusetts, knocking on doors and stating that he was lost. As the months went by, he lost more and more of his memories, faculties, and independence. Many difficult decisions had to be made concerning his care, and Miller relates the dissatisfaction she felt with much she had to do. In the end, "Miller offers her father's story not as a model of how to deal with Alzheimer's but merely as an example of what it is like," mused Sharan McBride in the Houston Chronicle. "This slim memoir puts a living face on Alzheimer's disease and spells out the caregiver's dilemma: all the moral, emotional, ethical and practical confusion that comes with our attempts to hold on to those who are lost to us. It doesn't make the pain any less, but it helps us face the awful reality that could await each one of us."

Geraldine Bedell, in the London Observer, found that despite the difficult nature of her subject, Miller managed to make her book enjoyable to read: "Miller is always a careful, nuanced writer, unaffected and perceptive, and her memoir is full of insight into the shifting relationships of parents and children, especially when the former become dependent on the latter. She is unsparing about her own self-deception and vanity in imagining she can talk her father out of his delusions. She is funny and acute about her own fury and perverse pleasure in clearing up a house her father has bought that was previously home to eighty cats." Reviewing The Story of My Father in the Boston Herald, Reeve Lindbergh stated that a family facing up to the course of Alzheimer's disease is in for "an arduous journey over rough terrain, with tempestuous weather and vanishing landmarks. There are dragons: dementia, delusional thinking, violent behavior. At the end of this journey, invariably, there is death. Few people who have been through the process could write of it with such honesty, awareness and grace." Lindbergh concluded: "Miller pays loving tribute to a treasured life, and mourns the manner of her father's dying, yet The Story Of My Father accomplishes more than that. It rises above both elegy and eloquent complaint."



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