The Distinguished Guest Essay - Critical Essays

Sue Miller

The Distinguished Guest

Author Sue Miller has established a reputation for focusing on families and the complicated emotional relationships that exist among their members, a theme she continues to explore in this, her fourth published novel. As the story opens, eighty-five-year-old Lily Roberts Maynard comes to stay with her grown son, Alan, and his French-born wife, Gaby, in their New England home. Lily is the “distinguished” guest of the title, having achieved widespread acclaim with the publication of her memoir at the age of seventy-two. Yet Lily can also be cold and remote, particularly toward her own family. Her divorce from Alan’s father years ago has long been a sore point for Alan. The tension- filled relationship between Lily and Alan serves as the center around which Miller weaves her complex tale.

The narrative intersperses the characters’ interactions in the present with their reminiscences on their past, as well as excerpts from Lily’s memoir and correspondence. Much to Alan’s dismay, Lily has invited an outsider to join the family enclave: Linnett Baird, a freelance journalist who is writing an article profiling Lily. Linnett has agreed to serve as Lily’s secretary in exchange for a series of interviews. Unfortunately, a combination of old age and Parkinson’s disease has so affected Lily that she ultimately takes her own life.

Miller’s beautiful prose shines through this complex novel. Her constant cutting back and forth between the characters’ actions in the present and scenes from their past drives home the inescapability of one’s past and the need to reconcile with it. There are no grand revelations—simply a series of quiet encounters, skillfully woven together, that lead inevitably toward Lily’s death and Alan’s heightened consciousness.

Sources for Further Study

Booklist. XCI, March 15, 1995, p. 1284.

The Christian Science Monitor. May 9, 1995, p. 13.

Library Journal. CXX, April 15, 1995, p. 116.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. May 7, 1995, p. 2.

The New York Times. April 21, 1995, p. B13.

The New York Times Book Review. C, May 7, 1995, p. 18.

The New Yorker. LXXI, May 22, 1995, p. 91.

Newsweek. CXXV, April 24, 1995, p. 60.

Publishers Weekly. CCXLII, February 27, 1995, p. 86.

The Wall Street Journal. April 19, 1995, p. A12.

The Washington Post Book World. XXV, April 2, 1995, p. 9.