If You Didn’t Feel It Then You Didn’t Live It: Monogamy by Sue Miller

Maybe love should come with a warning label. And relationships with a DEFCON system.

The beauty of Sue Miller’s work lies in its subtlety. Most of what I have read by her pre-dates me keeping track with my lists or reviews — I know I started with “The Senator’s Wife” but also read “The Good Mother” and “The Arsonist.” And if memory serves, in each case, in each book, the politics of relationships took the main stage. It’s no different with “Monogamy,” the story of Annie and Graham and Frieda — two marriages and three people whose lives are forever intertwined.

Set a little over 10 years ago in the suburbs of Boston, Monogamy explores both relationships and reactions to those relationships — intended and otherwise. Annie, the primary protagonist, is Graham’s second wife; Frieda was his first. Graham, a gregarious, larger than life personality, a bookshop owner in a college town, is in one sense, a people pleaser. The product of unstable if not abusive parenting, Graham just wants to make people happy. Unfortunately, he’s also a “my heart wants what it wants” kid of guy, and in asking Frieda for an open marriage, he ultimately loses the stability that he really craves.

With Annie, Graham has learned that open marriages have the potential to go south. Instead, he attempts to keep his affairs discreet. Too bad his own sense of guilt and remorse, along with loose lips, sink that ship, when, upon his sudden death, at least one of those relationships comes to light.

Grief, guilt, jealousy, frustration, stoicism … they’re all characters in this tale. Their relationship with love and family is just as front and center as Annie’s complicated turns as a wife, mother and friend are. While Annie spends her first year as a widow examining her relationship with Graham, his first wife, their son Lucas and her daughter Sarah, those close to her are also forced to examine their relationships with each other. If this book were a road trip, Lucas and Sarah serve as the interesting attractions along the way that you’re willing to blow your schedule to learn more about. Lucas, struggling to summon fatherly love for his newborn, worried he can’t measure up to Graham, and Sarah, seemingly stuck in a perpetual cycle of self-doubt, add layers of depth to the McFarlane family and the story that is Annie and Graham’s marriage and legacy.

Annie’s circuitous route through grief, back to love and affection, is quiet but moving, even impactful. it makes the reader consider the dangers of really opening your heart to someone, and recognizing the journey is well-worth the certain agony that awaits us all at the end. Grief is messy, grief is beautiful, grief requires cases and cases of wine and friends that can carry the weight with you. Annie wears it well.

If family melodrama is your lane, this won’t disappoint.

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