cover image The Distinguished Guest

The Distinguished Guest

Sue Miller. HarperCollins Publishers, $24 (282pp) ISBN 978-0-06-017673-0

One of Miller's signal strengths as a novelist is her eye for emotional and moral ambiguities. In her mature and intelligent fourth novel (after For Love), she subtly examines the themes of parental responsibility and failed communication in the context of a family attempting to hew to the highest religious principles. When celebrated 72-year-old writer Lily Maynard is forced by Parkinson's disease to move into the Massachusetts home of her architect son, Alan, and his French-born wife, Gaby, Alan is no longer able to surpress the resentment that he has buried for decades. In a memoir highly praised by feminists, Lily has described her youthful years as a dutiful wife of a gifted young minister in Chicago; her gradual disillusionment with her husband as he embraced militant social activism to achieve racial integration; her estrangement from the church; and her decision to dissolve the marriage. Alan knows that he and his two older sisters suffered from their father's expulsion and from their mother's coldness. Lily continues to offer self-serving versions of her life to a journalist who, visiting the house to interview Lily, becomes a catalyst for unearthing shared memories. Meanwhile, Alan's inner rage disturbs the delicate relationship between him and Gaby and their own two sons. Miller walks a delicate line here, rendering Lily as demanding, arrogant and spiteful; yet Lily's ultimate acknowledgement of her true motives carries poignant weight. There are no grand dramatic revelations, but a series of small epiphanies reached by almost all the characters chronicles a mysterious alchemy of relationships--""the transformation into memory of a parent""--and the last images are of healing, reconciliation and endurance. Miller's candid but forgiving gaze falls evenly on all her characters; her feel for detail and narrative pacing is impeccable, and her wisdom in understanding human relationships resonates with universal implications. 200,000 first printing; $200,000 ad/promo; BOMC alternate; author tour; world rights to Maxine Groffsky; HarperAudio release. (Apr.)