Inventing the Abbotts

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

As a passionate observer of the behavior of middle- and upper-middle-class educated Americans, Sue Miller has remarkable affinities with F. Scott Fitzgerald. In these eleven stories, several of them quite brief, Miller is concerned with dissecting the manners of class and status, with reckoning the moral costs of the questionable pursuit of romantic dreams, and with portraying the inevitable disenchantment that follows a loss of innocence.

In the relatively long title story, “Inventing the Abbotts,” which possesses perhaps the best examples of Miller’s themes, two bright, upwardly mobile brothers become entangled in the lives of the wealthy Abbott girls. Darkly handsome Jacey seduces (or is seduced by) Eleanor, a rebellious girl who becomes an outcast from her family; then in turn he becomes the lover of her sisters, the timid Alice and the unconventional Pamela. Jacey’s brother Doug, the prudent narrator, functions as the conscience of the story, attempting to understand Jacey’s compulsive womanizing as a scornful reaction to punish the proud Abbotts. Yet Doug is himself a victim of his brother’s cool lust, for the younger man has also loved Pamela and is forced to observe with chagrin her humiliation. In time, the brothers push forward to “success,” nearly but not quite attaining the social distinction of the Abbotts while gaining a measure of professional achievement and domestic satisfaction. The past, however, is still an open wound. They have, after all, “invented” the Abbotts--they have romanticized the family and, because of the fiction they have created, contributed to destroying it. In turn, the Abbotts have misconstrued illusion for reality and have “invented” the youthful brothers as mysterious, tantalizing lovers (or, from the matriarch’s point of view, as parvenu despoilers of her daughters). For the moral costs of living in a world of dreams, Miller seems to say, the wages are (just as Fitzgerald would have it) disenchantment and rue.