The Distinguished Guest
As The Distinguished Guest opens, eighty-five-year-old Lily Roberts Maynard is coming to stay with her grown son Alan and his French-born wife, Gaby, in their New England home for an indefinite period of time. Lily is the “distinguished” guest of the title, having achieved wide acclaim with the publication of her memoir at the age of seventy-two. Despite her late-discovered literary talent, however, Lily can be cold, remote, and difficult, particularly toward her own family. Her divorce from Alan’s father years earlier has long been a sore point for Alan, later aggravated by what he believed to be his mother’s rendering of private matters in her memoir for the public’s consumption. Thus her arrival provokes bittersweet memories.
Author Sue Miller achieved fame with the publication of her three previous and very successful novels, The Good Mother (1986), Family Pictures (1990), and For Love (1993). In this, her fourth novel, Miller continues to focus on families and on the very complicated emotional relationships among their members. 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 the series of short stories that followed it and from letters that she has accumulated over the years.
Lily has recounted in her memoir how she attempted to remain the ever-dutiful wife to her gifted young minister-husband, Paul, and the inevitable disintegration of their marriage as Paul began to embrace increasingly radical causes in his inner-city Chicago church. Her bold account of her devotion to her religion and to racial integration, as well as her eventual loss of faith in both her God and Paul, has been hailed by feminists and civil rights activists alike. Apparently, irreconcilable differences drove Lily and Paul to divorce when their two daughters were in college. Alan, the youngest, still lived at home and thus bore the brunt of the emotional fallout following the breakup.
Never overly maternal, Lily has always maintained a love-hate relationship with her daughters, Rebecca and Clary, and son, Alan. Rebecca, the oldest, disappeared in 1971 when she was implicated in the accidental detonation of a bomb that killed two people. Clary remarried several times and has joined the New Age movement in far- off California. Alan works as an architect and is the father of two college-age sons, Thomas and Etienne. Paul was eventually forced to leave his church amid a scandal and moved to California, where he died of an unnamed illness.
Lily’s stay in Alan’s home is to be only temporary. Because she suffers from Parkinson’s disease and is no longer able to take care of herself, she is awaiting a vacancy in a retirement home back in Chicago. The addition of Lily to Alan’s household stirs up old and bitter memories. Just as Lily has tried to come to terms with her life via her writing, Alan struggles to understand his own in terms of his relationship with Lily and the breakup of their family. Over the course of the novel, he relives certain scenes from his childhood, the dreary days following his parents’ divorce, his cross-country motorcycle trip to visit his dying father in California, and his long- distance courtship of Gaby, whom he met while on a foreign exchange program in France. Alan and Gaby’s marriage, too, it is shown, has had its difficulties.
Much to Alan’s dismay, Lily has invited an outsider to join the family enclave: Linnett Baird, a journalist for The New Yorker, who is writing an article profiling Lily. Thirty-fivish and divorced, Linnett signs on as Lily’s secretary—or amanuensis, as Lily puts it—in exchange for a series of interviews with her. As Lily suffers the debilitating effects of Parkinson’s, she has found it increasingly difficult not only to walk and eat but also to put pen to paper. Linnett has rented a nearby cottage and arrives daily to work with Lily on her literary projects as well as her correspondence. Unfortunately, a combination of old age and Parkinson’s has so affected Lily...
(The entire section is 1736 words.)