“Monogamy” by Sue Miller

This novel (Monogamy, published by Harper, 2020) is the latest rich offering from the talented Miller, and it was, for me, a particularly good choice during this era of COVID. As I’m reconnecting (online and in letters) with a couple of people from my childhood, and revisiting shared times with many others, I am reminded and educated about the odd behavior and character of memory.

The book, as its title indicates, is about faithfulness in marriage and other close relationships, and about the honesty — or lack of honesty — with which we remember our promises and failures. I am less interested in the marital story (although it is finely crafted) and riveted by the ways in which Miller captures the very different recall that two people may have of the same event.

I have noticed in the past couple of years that that my somewhat febrile recall of old, odd facts can make others uncomfortable. I used to take great writerly pleasure in sending very elaborate sympathy notes when a friend’s parent died, recalling all sorts of small bits that I remember about the person and their homes — sometimes from observation, and other times from the friend’s own descriptions. Over time I decided, based on their reactions or lack of same, that these notes were sometimes overwhelming or even shaming in their wealth of detail from an outsider. This novel prompts me to think that my recollections might have been unwelcome because they threw sharp elbows into the sides of their memories. What I recall flies in the face of their recollected history — and it is their memory that is in the canon; mine is the revisiting of a later and necessarily presumptuous amateur historian.

(I have tempered those notes recently, letting fly with the minutiae only when I feel sure the recipient will appreciate the volume of those thoughts. But as Miller shows me, I may still be guessing wrong at times.)

Miller captures the ease with which we can hurt (and also help) others by our casual reaction to a shared memory. In a recent online chat with a young friend — one not yet born when I was graduated from high school — we talked about outfits we remember wearing for various special occasions. I remembered the dress I could not wait to reveal after shedding my black commencement robe. I was thrilled with that white-and-sepia patterned cotton mini-dress. I shared a photograph with her: me in the un-ironed, bedspread-like “Indian print” shift, which that day was still reeking of incense from the head shop where it was purchased. Look at you — such a wanna-be-hippie, she says in her text, adding an open-mouthed emoji. So, the memory of something dear is replaced with a truth — a truth that I knew, of course, but which was wrapped in cottony affection for that silly 17-year-old girl, who was sure that the right dress could make her into the free spirit she longed to be. The change in my long-held memory is wrought so quickly that I do not see it coming, and it can’t be unseen.

Miller conveys this dynamic better than any other writer in my recent memory, and she revisits the layers of feelings around it repeatedly. Her storytelling warns me to be more careful in my handling of memories, my own and those written down and sent to comfort or entertain another. She plants the idea that I can find new insights in the jolt I feel when my own history is repackaged and sent back to me.

–Kimberly Marlowe Hartnett

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