Authors: Sue Miller

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

American novelist

Author Works

Long Fiction:

The Good Mother, 1986

Family Pictures, 1990

For Love, 1993

The Distinguished Guest, 1995

While I Was Gone, 1999

The World Below, 2001

Short Fiction:

“Given Names,” 1981

“Leaving Home,” 1982

“Tyler and Brina,” 1985

“The Lover of Women,” 1986

“Calling,” 1986

Inventing the Abbotts, and Other Stories, 1987

“The Moms of Summer,” 1991


The Story of My Father: A Memoir, 2003

Edited Text:

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.{$I[AN]9810001735}{$I[A]Miller, Sue}{$I[geo]WOMEN;Miller, Sue}{$I[geo]UNITED STATES;Miller, Sue}{$I[tim]1943;Miller, Sue}

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.

BibliographyEbert, Roger. “Joie de Vivre Missing from Cardboard ‘Abbotts’.” The Chicago Sun-Times, April 4, 1997, p. 37. In this review of the film version of “Inventing the Abbotts,” well-known film critic Roger Ebert says the picture’s story and its values and style are inspired by the 1950’s. Argues that the film is haunted by a story problem, for it is not about anything but itself; the characters are so preoccupied by the twists of the plot they have no other interests.Gussow, Mel. “Sue Miller Discovers a Trove of Domesticity.” The New York Times, March 8, 1999, p. E1. This general article, based on an interview and written on the occasion of the publication of Miller’s While I Was Gone, provides a biographical sketch, discusses critical response to Miller’s work, and comments on the novel’s source in the life of Katherine Ann Power, a 1960’s activist involved in a robbery and the killing of a policeman in Boston.Hirsch, Marianne. Family Frames: Photography, Narrative, and Postmemory. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1997. Miller’s work is discussed in a study of family and photographs in contemporary literature and art.McManus, Barbara F. “Anna and Demeter: The Myth of the Good Mother.” In The Anna Book, edited by Mickey Pearlman. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1992. Compares Miller’s novel to the parallel Greek myth of Demeter and Persephone and to Anna Karenina’s struggle between erotic and maternal love.McNamara, Mary. “Authors–The People Behind the Books We Read.” Los Angeles Times, April 14, 1999, p. E1. An interview-based article and discussion of Miller’s While I Was Gone. Reacts against critics who characterize Miller’s work as “domestic”; discusses her literary career; summarizes While I Was Gone, and provides a brief biographical sketch. Miller says that she does not understand why she is perceived as a women’s writer or a family writer, but says that at least women are still reading, asking: “Where are the people who were reading Philip Roth and Norman Mailer?”Miller, Sue. Interview by Rosemary Herbert. Publishers Weekly 229 (May 2, 1986): 60-61. Miller discusses the evolution of her novel The Good Mother from a short story about a teenager’s preoccupation with an aunt. She says she was dissatisfied with the simplistic answers of much postfeminist fiction and wished to trace the development of a woman who wanted to be someone other than who she became.Miller, Sue. “Virtual Reality: The Perils of Seeking a Novelist’s Facts in Her Fiction.” The New York Times, April 12, 1999, p. E1. Miller’s contribution to the series “Writers on Writing” focuses on the common reader question about how much of her fiction is autobiographical. Miller insists that you can make a story out of anything and what is interesting about a story is not the thing that is in it, but what the writer makes of that thing; shaping is what writing is all about, she says, the struggle for meaning allowing the writer to “escape the tyranny of what really happened.”Penner, Jonathan. “Sense and Sensuality.” The Washington Post, May 17, 1987, p. X9. In this review of Inventing the Abbotts and Other Stories, Penner praises Miller for her ability to capture the male viewpoint, especially male sexual views of women. Singles out the stories “Tyler and Brina” and “Leaving Home” for special praise, but argues that the title story, although the most ambitious, is too conversational, too engaged in summary and analysis.Zinman, Toby Silverman. “The Good Old Days in The Good Mother.” Modern Fiction Studies 34 (Autumn, 1988): 405-413. Zinman gives a quirky, original interpretation of the novel. She considers the longing for the innocent, happy days spent in childhood at her grandparents’ summer home as the ruling motivation in Anna’s life. Significantly, this was a women’s world, for the men came up only on weekends, and they always seemed superfluous to Anna.
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