I resisted downloading this book multiple times. I kept receiving emails about it and in a weak moment, I downloaded it. I somehow knew that these characters were going to have a personal reckoning that would be a painful process. In these past months isn’t that what many of us have been doing? We’ve been reassessing and re-evaluating our lives, and for many death has been a part of this. Aloneness. The reality of who we thought we were clashing with who we really are.
I also resisted because “secrets” (cheating) causes physical pain in my heart. It’s a sad thing all around, isn’t it? The interesting thing about this novel was that on many levels this novel is more about Graham and his larger-than-life presence he brings to everyone’s lives than Annie. From the blurb it seems to be Annie’s story. It’s also one of the complaints in some of the reviews I read. I only read a handful of reviews and reviews only–I haven’t read or heard anything else about this despite being featured many places. This is a polarizing novel and part of me wanted to know why, exactly. But I was also unsure how vested I was in finding out. I wanted to skim, and in places I did, but the prose wouldn’t allow me fully do so.
It could be said that it’s a story about Graham’s cheating and the devastating effects it has on others. Some complained that Miller spent too much time on Graham. But he’s the thread that runs through the entire novel even more than the generalized notion of monogamy. In some ways, it’s the monogamy that these characters have with Graham and the idea of Graham that creates a perverse monogamy. The whole story feels like a play on monogamy, relationships, and what these two constructs mean to the characters as well as the reader.
I don’t find this a necessarily misleading title but to say it’s a novel about monogamy doesn’t do it justice nor is it completely accurate if we stick to the concept of one-on-one sexual relationships. I’d add that the blurb is also slightly misleading–I’m pretty sure that many of the complaints stem from the fact that “Annie is lost and doesn’t know how to go on without him” is only part of this novel. Before and after Annie’s loss, this novel asks the reader to reflect on the concept of monogamy and, in its absence, an open relationship. These two concepts are primarily represented by the relationships Graham has within his two marriages. Relationships are explored by presenting these two wives living side by side, so to speak. They become friends early on. Deeper than monogamy, the novel asks the reader to reflect on the nature of these relationships and, more importantly, the relationship the individual characters have with themselves. Specifically, the concepts of the wounded child, as well as what the individual brings to and takes from a relationship. It also posits the deeper question of what constitutes a relationship, as well as questioning our understanding of what willing participants we are when there’s fallout. We rush to blame or outsource those feelings and problems. “Those things” do not belong to us…we are somehow “victims.”
The novel has a strange set-up if you are looking for a straight-forward story about cheating and monogamy because the story begins with Annie’s first marriage (no cheating or “secrets” but a change in perspective). At the core of this relationship are the wounds of her childhood. She’s looking for guidance and belonging. For a time, she finds it, but she finds that what she had in that relationship was shallow. Eventually realizing that she didn’t even like her husband. Her divorce sends her down a path of sexual liberation and disconnection, dropping her off at the proverbial doorstep of someone similar yet not the same, her second husband.
The bits and pieces of history that Miller presents seem to fit and yet not fit within the framework of “monogamy.” My initial response was a lot of the material could be cut with the focus placed elsewhere—the intro being one of them. I later disagreed with myself and then vacillated. The change of perspective Annie has in the beginning has a kind of call-and-response relationship to the change in perspective she has toward the end of the novel. Not the same but similar. However, I suppose that’s the paradox of this word’s prefix: mono, meaning one. Yes, one mate, one marriage—however, just because it’s “one” doesn’t mean it’s isolated. Nothing about Graham is isolated. However, in some ways the characters given a voice and the one that wasn’t somehow “isolated” themselves via their relationship to him.
Interestingly enough, both of Graham’s marriages produced one child. Yet, familial disconnection and childhood issues send the children to the “other” mom with their troubles. Because of Graham, they were all so enmeshed. And Graham continues to have affairs with the wives of their friends, although with Annie the tenor of these affairs is different, and he is different. Again, not “one,” many. Miller touches on all the interconnectedness of family and community, which naturally extends beyond “one.” Toward the end of the story, Miller has the characters (one husband, two wives, and two children) individually reflecting on their situations as if they were the only ones hurt. Again, one. But one’s individuality is also connected to the relationships and associations created and maintained, and that becomes a sticky wicket.
The devastating realization for all of the characters happens in their shifts in perspective, when they stop thinking they’re somehow “alone” or “disconnected” and that is somehow the fault of someone else. Not only are they able to see from another’s perspective, they also begin to see their own culpability. The culpability may not come from some choice (if this, then that). It’s the realization that the choices the individual made led them there and they weren’t as resourceless, victimized, and/or accurate as they may have imagined themselves to be. Frieda, for example, at one point realizes that she didn’t fight for her marriage and chose to live in the fringes of Graham’s love and light—no wonder no one asks about her. Annie has a similar realization in that she chose to be swallowed up/eaten whole by Graham—because she loves him so much she has made these choices, choices she was previously blaming on him. She realizes that his world was small, she loved him and wanted to be a part of this world, just as Frieda was unable to let Graham go because they still loved each other in their own way (her more deeply than him). Neither could blame him for being him. At the same time, he wasn’t the same Graham with Frieda as he was with Annie, which brings the story back around to who we are/think we are and who we are in a relationship, a kind of oneness and not oneness.