Two painfully memorable moments anchor “Monogamy,” a sophisticated, melancholy novel about an American family that some would call dysfunctional, others awkwardly recognizable and sympathetic.
In the first, Annie, an introspective photographer, awakens before dawn one day in the mid-2000s in her shabby, comfortable home in Cambridge, Mass., to find Graham, her 57-year-old second husband of more than 30 years, lying cold and “yellowish gray” next to her.
It’s a spooky scene, and one that unfolds well into the book, after we’ve come to know this couple and the tricky choreography of their marriage.
Weeks later, Annie, still deeply shaken, summons the strength to arrange a memorial service for Graham at the bustling bookstore he co-owns. Afterward, she invites the mourners to her house.
Late that evening, she goes upstairs to use the bathroom and hears an eerie keening coming from Graham’s study. Thinking at first that it is their adult daughter, Sarah, she heads there.
It is not Sarah, she realizes in a moment “of confusion, and then of sudden clarity.” It is a woman she barely knows, sobbing her heart out at her husband’s desk. The woman “turned toward the open doorway, her face lifted to Annie, ravaged by grief, sorrow, and then quickly something else. Guilt. Apology.”
Her husband’s lover.
The discovery that Graham, a large, cheerful, broad-souled man, had a very recent affair curdles Annie’s grief. She does not wish to share her intensely private rage and anguish with Sarah, or with her husband’s son by his first marriage, Lucas. But she does tell her husband’s first wife, Frieda, who through the years has become one of Annie’s closest friends.
Like much in this well-woven book about sexual attraction, family dynamics and the mess they make together, that relationship is both unusual and entirely believable.
By now it’s obvious that the novel’s title, “Monogamy,” is ironic. Graham has not been true to Annie (she never even learns of his most intense affair, which he has gloomily confessed to Frieda, who mercifully never tells Annie).
Graham has been true to no one, yet Annie is his north star. Annie has come close to an affair of her own, yet Graham is her heart’s desire.
Annie’s not the only one struggling with the vagaries of love and lust. Sarah has had her shields up against men until meeting one who loves her without irony or condition. Graham and Frieda’s son, Lucas, is unsure about his marriage after the birth of their baby.
Everyone in this novel hungers for love and loyalty, but no one truly achieves it. And yet after myriad struggles and revelations, those with the most attentive, loving hearts find peace.
Annie is foremost among them. Her passage from the pure grief that stems from true love, to the awful anger that comes from the knowledge of betrayal, to the peace that comes from self-understanding and forgiving a betrayal, are the trajectory of this novel.
It’s an excruciating read, and one that can feel cold and remote in the era that has unfolded after it was written. Americans are focused on COVID-19 and racial turmoil now, and a privileged white family’s struggles can feel distant.
And yet, such private sorrows occur no matter what else is going on. A salute to Sue Miller for diving into the domestic dramas that play out in many an American family.
By: Sue Miller.
Publisher: Harper, 352 pages, $28.99.