The Good Mother was Sue Miller’s first novel and became a great success. It sold well, was praised in reviews, and was widely discussed. The book reflects the concerns that Miller explored further in Family Pictures (1990) and For Love (1993). Each of the novels focuses on a family in trouble and the nature of loving relationships. In her books, Miller refuses to follow the conventions of happy endings, allowing only ambiguous futures for her characters after they struggle with conflict and pain.
The popularity of The Good Mother perhaps stemmed from its relevance to social problems that dominated public consciousness in the 1980’s. The breakup of the American family, feminist concerns regarding the place of women in society, changing roles of mothers, sexual abuse of children, the personal in conflict with the public—all are themes that contribute to the complicated world of The Good Mother.
Far from suggesting answers to any of these problems, however, The Good Mother simply follows them to their logical conclusions within the context of the plot. Anna loses everything she holds dear by the end of the novel. The only constant is her love for Molly, which she never compromises or uses even for what may be the child’s own good. Some critics have suggested that the popularity of The Good Mother resulted because the novel played on women’s fear of being left alone, yet such a conclusion seems simplistic.
In The Good Mother, Sue Miller staked out her territory: the country of domestic conflict, where issues of love, control, and divided loyalties strip her characters bare. In subsequent works, she has continued to explore the extreme margins of this territory with sensitivity.