In her 1950s work “The Unmade Bed,” photographer Imogen Cunningham depicts sexual intimacy.
No people appear in the image, but the rumpled folds in the sheets and discarded hair combs suggest previous bedmates. In Sue Miller’s “Monogamy,” Annie — half of the couple at the novel’s center — presses to include a similar image in an upcoming exhibit of her art photographs. She thinks of her photo of tangled sheets and books scattered on the floor as “an evocation of the intimate, sexual heart of a marriage. She had wanted it to be the first thing people saw at the show.”
But the exhibit’s organizer dismisses Annie’s photo as a cliche. Sexual intimacy may be the beating heart of a long-term marriage, but perhaps it is not the lifeblood that sustains it.
Miller’s novel — one of many in a distinguished career — depicts the warp of a stable 30-year marriage and the patterns created by the weft of issues of trust and fidelity. Miller interrogates the notion that sexual exclusivity is the only measure of faithfulness while deftly exploring whether the bond of a long marriage is fundamentally changed when one or both partners find intimacy elsewhere.
In the early narrative, chapters alternate points of view between Annie and her bookstore-owner husband, Graham. Both had earlier marriages that ended in divorce, and the experiences of those failed relationships directly influence their union. Annie’s first marriage provokes feelings of shame after she falls out of love with a man whose cutting remarks toward others had shored her up against her young adult insecurities — at least until he turns his scorn on her. She leaves the marriage doubting her ability for genuine love. Graham’s first marriage to Frieda had been ostensibly “open,” but Frieda had tired of the experiment almost immediately. Graham had carried on, oblivious to his wife’s pain until she could stand it no longer. “It hurt,” she told him finally, “it hurt all the time.”
Graham pursues Annie with his joyous version of love, and she marries him shortly after realizing that she’d “been waylaid, really — by happiness, by his love for her, and then, more slowly, hers for him.” She becomes stepmother to Graham’s son, Lucas, and the new family blends further when she gives birth to their daughter, Sarah.
Graham dies within the first few chapters, and Miller chronicles the twin griefs of Annie’s devastating loss and her discovery that Graham had a brief affair. As Annie moves through grief’s familiar stages, her secondary grief over this newly exposed secret amplifies her anger but numbs her against feeling the finality of Graham’s death. Miller’s narration expands in chapters to characters in the marriage’s orbit. We see this marriage through the eyes of Sarah and Lucas, now adults, as well as Frieda, who provides the story of her marriage to Graham, and Graham’s best friend, who knows the reasons for his affair.
These chapters are interspersed with Annie’s perspective as she seeks her view of her marriage through the scrim of her sense of betrayal. She becomes an observer of the children’s grief but distances herself from it and them. During the scattering of her husband’s ashes, Miller notes: “Watching the other three, she moved a little to change the angle from which she saw them. She realized abruptly that she was composing a picture she might have taken, and felt a familiar sense of something like shame.”
The shifting perspectives in the narrative feel as if Miller is changing camera angles to demonstrate how dependent truth is on what is shown to us. Her skillfulness at doing so makes a familiar plot into an original story that reflects the real-life complexity of long relationships. “Monogamy” demonstrates that Miller remains one of the finest cartographers of the territory of marriage.