By December 15, 2009 0 Comments Read More →

Talking About Bad Behavior

Imagine, if you will, a scenario in which a couple like Bill and Hillary Clinton live next door to Monica Lewinsky, and Hillary and Monica become good friends long before the latter ever starts “fooling around” with the former’s husband.  That’s pretty much the set-up for Sue Miller’s bestselling novel, The Senator’s Wife, which I thought was an excellent read and consequently,  great fodder for a stimulating book discussion.

Well, I was only partially right.  I still think the book is well written and thought provoking.  But the members of my book group didn’t agree.  They didn’t like the author’s writing style (“too many sentence fragments”), and they were appalled by the characters and the plot developments.  The discussion wasn’t dull and boring, by any means.  Just not “stimulating” in the way I expected it to be.

One of the challenges for me, as the leader, was to try to make the participants see that the author wasn’t describing objectionable behavior just to infuriate them.  “She’s old enough to know better!” cried one group member of a character who deviously reads another’s personal letters.  “Nobody I know would ever do a thing like that!”  Another character was reviled for “standing by her man” even after it’s been revealed to her that he is a serial womanizer.  (“What could be more topical?” I politely opined.)

In situations like these, I always ask why the author is showing us these characters, and what is their behavior saying not only about them, but about the human condition and our contemporary world in general.  Sometimes group members are interested in exploring those ideas, and sometimes they’re just too aggravated with “these people” the author has “cooked up and served to us in all their unappealing degradation.”

One of the major themes of  The Senator’s Wife is betrayal, not only between a husband and wife, but also between friends and family members.  Sue Miller is a master at creating people whom I find to be very recognizable, putting them in situations where they get close, very close,  and come to trust each other, then commit horrendous acts which tear their relationships apart.  I find this fascinating to read about, but apparently others can find it annoying, even offensive.

So I learned something.  Maybe it’s just that  people are tired of plots that remind them of the Clintons, or even Ted Kennedy and his ex-wife, Joan.  They want to set aside that kind of gossip and scandal and indelicate behavior and think about something else.  But as the celebrated film critic Roger Ebert once said, no topic is out-of-bounds; it’s how it’s handled that counts.

I finally steered the group away from its full-scale derision of the book to focus on the novel’s last paragraph, which is a bit of a puzzler.  This is Meri, the younger woman, speaking:  “But what she would have told Delia if she had had the words then for what she has come to feel over the years, what she would have said — and she would swear that this is true — is that she did what she did with Tom that day for love.  Out of love.”  Of course, to understand this passage, you have to know “what she did with Tom,” and I’m not going to reveal that here.  The consequences of her act — both favorable and unfavorable — are worth pondering.  But what’s really a poser is her self-defined motivation — “out of love.”  Is it possible to betray someone you care about and destroy several lives in the process and then tell yourself you did it for “love”?  Love of whom — and what?  Ultimately, that was something to really think about — and talk about.

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About the Author:

Ted Balcom lives in Arlington Heights, IL and conducts workshops on leading book discussions, about which he has also published a book: Book Discussions for Adults: A Leader’s Guide (American Library Association, 1992).

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