The Good Mother by Sue Miller

Sue Miller wrote one of my favorite books from last year’s reading, While I Was Gone. I’m also a fan of her novel Lost in the Forest. Sue Miller is simply one of the bravest writers around today, much braver than most men. She is willing to tackle themes most authors would shy away from, and when she does, she doesn’t go for easy answers. By making the extraordinary look everyday and by bringing hot button issues that usually have clear cut answers into a gray area, Sue Miller forces the reader to take a good hard look at our common assumptions about the right way to behave in a given situation.

That is definitely the case in The Good Mother. Here Sue Miller tells the story of Anna Dunlap who has left her husband and is raising her young daughter on her own. The Anna is finding herself and her sexuality which is not uncommon in this sort of narrative. However, Sue Miller takes us down a very difficult path, difficult for Anna and for the reader. After some time on her own, Anna finds a new love who opens her world up to the possibilities of profound love and really good sex. The kind of release she never dreamed possible with her husband.

The two of them create an idyllic world, free of the inhibitions of Anna’s marriage, new and exciting. Enter the daughter, enter trouble in paradise. Towards the end of a father/daughter weekend Anna gets a call from her ex-husband telling her that her new lover has sexually abused their daughter and that she won’t be coming home again. The father is suing for custody.

This reader was not as surprised by this as Anna was. (I’m not sure how the fact that I could see this coming reflects on the overall quality of the novel. I don’t think Anna is an entirely reliable narrator.) There is one scene in the book where mom and the boyfriend clearly cross the line, and we hear about a second scene where the boyfriend goes to far, but in each case, I have to admit, it may be that I’m more shocked by the events than the events warrant. Maybe what happened is really okay, innocent like the mother says it was. Maybe these are things that happen much more often that we thought. Maybe they really were just a mistake, not sexual abuse.

That is what makes Sue Miller such a brave writer and books like The Good Mother such compelling reading. There are no easy answers in a Sue Miller novel. We want easy answers in situations like the ones we find in The Good Mother. We want a clear-cut bad guy to focus our anger on. But things are much more complicated than that in The Good Mother, much more complicated, much more troubling and much more interesting as a result.

I found The Good Mother to be compelling reading most of the time, but not all of the time. There are a few sections in the beginning that really go on too long. Therefore, I’m giving The Good Mother by Sue Miller four out of five stars.

I first ran this review over at my old blog Ready When You Are, C.B. back in September of 2007.  It’s difficult to read it now and not think about Woody Allen’s daughter.  I imagine people must be asking Sue Miller what she thinks when she does readings these days.  

I’m glad to have found this review again.  For a couple of years there, I was reading lots of Sue Miller books, but I don’t think I’ve read one since this review.  I should.  She was darn good.