Picks and Pans Review: The Distinguished Guest

updated 05/15/1995 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 05/15/1995 AT 01:00 AM EDT

by Sue Miller

In Sue Miller's deft hands, mothers are a source of beguiling fiction; her latest novel is no exception. Lily Maynard is the character of the title, an octogenarian who has published her memoirs—family secrets and all—to literary acclaim at the age of 72.

As a young woman, Lily married a minister, moved with him to Chicago's South Side and had three children. As her husband's politics turned increasingly radical in the '60s, Lily abandoned her marriage and the church to begin "the slow learning about what was left."

Lily's public revelations and her new role as elder feminist amuse and annoy her children. "I have to confess to you some bitterness at mother's success, at her parlaying our whole family's misery into her own triumph," writes her daughter Clary in a letter to her younger brother Alan, an architect.

When the cantankerous Lily becomes incapacitated by Parkinson's disease, Alan takes her into his New England home for a temporary visit A happy man, with two grown sons and a nurturing French wife, he is unprepared for the repercussions of his mother's stay; the buried feelings of grief, rage and resentment are exhumed by the presence of his "distinguished guest." Another visitor, journalist Linnett Baird, arrives to interview Lily for a magazine profile and becomes the unwitting director of the family drama that unfolds.

Once again, Miller (The Good Mother) brings her sharp perceptions to this troubling story of a family confronting its emotional connections in the face of disintegration, loss and, ultimately, "the mystery of the difference between the living and the dead." (HarperCollins, $24)

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