The Good Mother, 1986
Family Pictures, 1990
For Love, 1993
The Distinguished Guest, 1995
While I Was Gone, 1999
The World Below, 2001
“Given Names,” 1981
“Leaving Home,” 1982
“Tyler and Brina,” 1985
“The Lover of Women,” 1986
Inventing the Abbotts, and Other Stories, 1987
“The Moms of Summer,” 1991
The Story of My Father: A Memoir, 2003
The Best American Short Stories 2002, 2002 (with Katrina Kenison)
Sue Miller made her reputation as one of the most clear-eyed chroniclers of the tensions and stresses of middle-class family life in the United States in the second half of the twentieth century. She has a keen insight into conflicts between different generations as well as between siblings and husbands and wives. Descended from clergy on both sides for several generations, Miller grew up in an integrated Chicago neighborhood. At the age of sixteen she entered Radcliffe College and graduated with a B.A. in English Literature. She went on to earn an M.A. in early childhood education from Harvard University, an M.A. in creative writing from Boston University, and an M.A. in English education from Wesleyan University. Miller married a medical student after leaving Radcliffe, but they were divorced in the 1970’s, three years after the birth of their son.
After completing her formal education Miller worked for eight years as a day-care teacher, an experience to which she later credited the keen observation and profound understanding of childhood psychology that critics noted in her writing. In 1983 Miller published a short story in the North American Review that became the basis for her first novel, The Good Mother. In this highly acclaimed first novel, Miller staked out her territory; the domestic country of conflict where issues of control and divided loyalties strip her characters bare. Anna Dunlap, the title character, is the sympathetic narrator of the story. Her husband, Brian, appears to be a decent man, and when they divorce, Anna receives custody of their daughter, Molly. The portrait of Molly Dunlap is one of the triumphs of the novel; an authentic depiction of a bright, happy, child, struggling to make sense of the torn world her parents have created. At first Anna’s life alone with Molly proceeds smoothly, but when she steps out of her chaste role as a single mother to engage in a passionate affair with an artist named Leo, she sets the wheels of retribution in motion. By the end of the novel, a devastated Anna has lost everything she holds dear.
In the mid-1980’s Miller married the writer Doug Bauer and settled in Boston, where she had lived while obtaining her education and writing The Good Mother. Her second novel, Family Pictures, appeared in 1990 and was nominated for a National Book Critics Circle Award in 1991. One of the most striking features of this work is the fluid point of view used in telling of the Eberhardt family. Although anchored in the perspective of one of the daughters, Nina, the angle shifts to include the viewpoint of the parents, David and Lainey, as well as that of other family members. The mother’s decision to keep an autistic son at home, which results in traumatic effects on some of the other children, is the wheel that turns the plot. An added twist is Miller’s decision to portray the father as a Freudian analyst who believes that mothers are to blame for autism. Miller’s third novel, For Love, received the serious critical attention she felt had been denied the first two. This work is a psychological drama narrated by forty-four-year-old Lottie Gardner, who explores the nature, and primarily the failures, of modern love stories. The novel opens with the death of an au pair girl whom Cameron, Lottie’s brother, accidently kills in an auto accident. At the time Cameron is on his way to confront Elizabeth, the woman he thinks he loves. Lottie, Cameron, and Elizabeth all share some of the blame for the accident, but as is usual in a Sue Miller novel, some of those responsible are hardened and some are repentent. For Love is built on Lottie’s growth from a hardened to a repentent sinner.
After this third novel Miller gave up teaching creative writing at colleges in the Boston area to work full time as a writer. Her next novel, The Distinguished Guest, is the story of an elderly, famous mother who intrudes on the domesticity of her youngest son. Another family saga, The Distinguished Guest subtly explores the conflicts between public and private selves.
In While I Was Gone, a woman’s past comes back to destroy her present life. The World Below is an exploration of a past scandal that has lost its scandalous power; the main character, Cath, returns to her dead grandmother’s Vermont house to recover from her own setbacks in life and discovers the circumstances that had circumscribed her life.
Critics and reviewers have found much to analyze in Miller’s complex art: her subtle and psychologically valid character development; her gift of creating dialogue and setting; and her discerning use of imagery. Miller’s style is relentlessly realistic, yet her troubled characters are at once real people and metaphors. In her work Miller explores the changing nature of the American family with delicacy and depth.