The Distinguished Guest
Sue Miller (Adult Fiction)
“It is probably fair to ask to what extent Lily Maynard is conscious of the effect she makes, but it’s not a question you’ll easily find the answer to.”
Lily Roberts Maynard reached literary fame at age seventy-two with The Integrationist: A Spiritual Memoir. She’s had moderate success with various fictional short stories that followed, but nothing to the scale of her memoir. Now Lily, who was once celebrated and sought after, finds herself living in relative seclusion with her architect son, Alan, and his wife as Parkinson’s disease slowly consumes her body and mind. Finding themselves once again under the same roof, both Lily and Alan confront decisions made in the past while trying to find a way to move forward.
This is the third book by Sue Miller that I’ve read (the other two being The World Below and Lost in the Forest) and I continue to find myself underwhelmed with her work. The Distinguished Guest is described as a “moving story of a mother and son”, but in reality, Miller gives us a story of a mother and son…and her late husband…and her deceased parents, as well as a son…and his wife…and his two siblings…and his two sons. Throw in a visiting journalist who has her own messy backstory and you have a novel simply overburdened and overwhelmed with relationships. This might be the reason I have trouble connecting with Miller’s books. She inundates her stories with too many character profiles, backstories, and conflicts that spread the reader’s focus entirely too thin and leave little or nothing left to hold onto. Just as “too many cooks spoil the broth”, Miller gives us far too many relationships that ultimately spoil the story.
I wish I liked this book more since there are several interesting and important issues that Miller encounters head on: race relations, religious faith versus spirituality, social conformity, and infidelity. But these subjects are not enough to lift The Distinguished Guest from its own emotional saturation and social mire. Ayn Rand once said, “If it’s worth doing, it’s worth overdoing.” In this case, a few less cooks would have made for a much more pleasing broth.
*Book cover image attributed to www.amazon.com