Thursday, December 10, 2020

That Is What Fiction Means

One of the additional pleasures of reading fiction is the occasional passage that stands out for its humor or wisdom or information.  It may not advance the narrative, but it's memorable, and I like to quote them here when I encounter them.

I'm in the middle of Sue Miller's new novel Monogamy (Harper, 2020).  I've read Miller's first several novels, starting with The Good Mother (1986), whose rapturous reviews persuaded me to give it a try when it first hit the best-seller lists, and continuing through its first few successors.  Miller is a solid, intelligent chronicler of late 20th-century white heterosexual American middle-class life.  She's never spectacular, which is partly why I let myself lose track of her, but I appreciate her insights into a milieu foreign to me.

At any rate, this passage snagged me.  Annie (I'm not sure her surname is ever mentioned), the photographer-protagonist, has been happily married for thirty years to bookseller Graham.  It's the second marriage for both of them.  They have a daughter, as well as Graham's son from his first marriage.  One night Graham dies peacefully in his sleep at the age of sixty-four, and this scene takes place a few days afterward, as Annie struggles with her grief.  Her longtime friend Edith, "possibly the most beautiful person Annie had ever met," pays her a visit.

It seemed [Edith] was conscious of this, of her beauty.  She always dressed elegantly, if simply -- tailored slacks on her long, long legs.  Silk shirts.  Bright lipstick.  But she said all this to please her patients - she was a pediatrician.  It mattered to children, she said, how you looked.  "Remember how much you loved pretty ladies when you were a child?" she asked Annie.  "'Pitty ladies,'" she said in a little-girl voice, and then laughed.  "It's only when you grow up that you learn you can love what's ugly, too."

Annie had been unable not to smile -- this, from a woman whose husband had been as gorgeous as she was, so that when they came into a crowded room together in the old days, there was an almost collective intake of breath, a kind of group sigh [151].

Though it sounds like it, Edith's husband isn't dead, except perhaps to Annie.  He's very much alive, living with the man he left her for.  They are friends now, having worked at it for the sake of the children initially, but so far he hasn't appeared directly in the book and I rather doubt he will.  It's a salutary reminder to me of how I, a gay man, appear in Sue Miller's imaginary, and the milieu she writes about.

As I reread this passage, I have second thoughts about it.  I took for granted that the claim about how children perceive adults, that prettiness matters, was true, gleaned perhaps from a pediatrician Miller knows.  But now I think there's something a bit off about it.  We're seeing Edith through Annie's eyes, it's true, but I don't know: I haven't been to a pediatrician in about sixty years, and I don't think the ones who saw me as a kid were ever women.  I don't recall loving "pretty ladies" as a tender young fagling, but it was a long time ago.  Maybe it's just me.  If I'd been a real gay boy in training, I not only would have noticed the silk shirts and bright lipstick, I'd have known the designer's name and the name of the exact shade Edith wore.