Sue Miller's Top Ten List

Author Photo And Bio
Sue Miller

Sue Miller (born 1945) is an American author who has published 10 novels. They expertly unspool high-tension, hot button plots - involving molestation and murder, blackmail, betrayal, arson and terrorism - with what Michiko Kakutani of the New York Times called a “Chekhovian understanding of missed connections, lost opportunities, and closely held memories that mutate slowly over time.” Her debut novel, The Good Mother (1986), was a bestseller that earned rave reviews. Her other novels include Family Pictures (1990), While I Was Gone (1999), The Senator’s Wife (2008) and The Arsonist (2014). She has also published a short story collection, Inventing the Abbotts (1997), and a memoir, The Story of My Father (2003). Her numerous honors include a Guggenheim and a Radcliffe Institute Fellowship. She is a committed advocate for the writer’s engagement with society at large, having held a position on the Board of PEN-American Center.

1. The Children’s Bach by Helen Garner (1984). Athena and Dexter lead an enclosed family life, innocent of fashion and bound towards a disturbed child. Their comfortable rut is disrupted by the arrival of Elizabeth, a tough nut from Dexter's past. With her three charming, chaotic hangers-on, she draws the couple out into a world whose casual egotism they had barely dreamed of. How can they get home again?

2. The Beginning of Spring by Penelope Fitzgerald (1988). “It is Jane Austen crossed with Chekhov and Turgenev,” observed A. S. Byatt of this witty domestic novel set in Moscow on the eve of war and revolution. In the spring of 1913, Frank Reid’s wife leaves him and their three children to return to England. Frank, who was born in Russia and runs the print shop his British father founded there, deplores change. Character, not plot, rules Fitzgerald’s fictions; with subtlety and insight she reveals him navigating his new circumstances (and hoping for his wife’s return) while dealing with a host of vividly drawn, often idiosyncratic characters.

3. Train Dreams by Denis Johnson (2011). Robert Grainier is a day laborer in the American West at the start of the twentieth century—an ordinary man in extraordinary times. Buffeted by the loss of his family, Grainer struggles to make sense of this strange new world. As his story unfolds, we witness both his shocking personal defeats and the radical changes that transform America in a novella which captures the disappearance of a distinctly American way of life.

4. Binocular Vision: New and Selected Short Stories by Edith Pearlman (2011). Spanning four decades and three prize-winning collections, these twenty-one previously published stories and thirteen new ones take us around the world, from Jerusalem to Central America, from tsarist Russia to London during the Blitz, from central Europe to Manhattan, and from the Maine coast to Godolphin, Massachusetts, a fictional suburb of Boston. Against these charged landscapes, Pearlman deploys her wit and clear-eyed optimism to portray a wide array of characters and situations―including an unforeseen love affair between adolescent cousins, a lifetime of memories unearthed by an elderly couple's decision to shoplift, the deathbed secret of a young girl's forbidden forest tryst with the tsar and the danger that befalls a wealthy couple's child in a European inn of misfits.

5. Lucy Gayheart by Willa Cather (1935). At the age of eighteen, Lucy Gayheart leaves Nebraska to study music in Chicago. She is beautiful and impressionable and ardent, and these qualities attract the attention of Clement Sebastian, an aging but charismatic singer who exercises all the tragic, sinister fascination of a man who has renounced life only to turn back to seize it one last time. Out of their doomed love affair, and Lucy's fatal estrangement from her origins, Cather creates a haunting novel that offers a series of crystalline variations on the themes that preoccupy some of her greatest fiction: the impermanence of innocence, the opposition between prairie and city, provincial American values and world culture, and the grandeur, elation, and heartache that await a gifted young woman who leaves her small town to pursue a life in art.

6. McKay’s Bees by Thomas McMahon (1979). Moving from Massachusetts to Kansas in 1855 with his new wife and a group of German carpenters, Gordon McKay is dead set on making his fortune raising bees—undaunted by Missouri border ruffians, newly-minted Darwinism, or the unsettled politics of a country on the brink of civil war.

7. The Little Disturbances of Man by Grace Paley (1959). This collection of short stories explores the "little disturbances" that lie behind our everyday lives. Whether writing about sexy little girls, loving and bickering couples, angry suburbanites, frustrated job-seekers, or Jewish children performing a Christmas play, Paley captures the loneliness, poignancy, and humor of human experience.

8. A High Wind in Jamaica by Richard Hughes (1929). The novel’s dreamlike action begins among the decayed plantation houses and overwhelming natural abundance of late nineteenth-century Jamaica, before moving out onto the high seas, as Hughes tells the story of a group of children thrown upon the mercy of a crew of down-at-the-heel pirates. A tale of seduction and betrayal, of accommodation and manipulation, of weird humor and unforeseen violence, this celebrated masterpiece of concentrated narrative is above all an extraordinary reckoning with the secret reasons and otherworldly realities of childhood.

9. Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte (1847). Like Wuthering Heights, this is a romance set in the isolated moors of rural England the Brontës called home. Its title character is an exceptionally independent orphan who becomes governess to the children of an appealing but troubled character, Mr. Rochester. As their love develops, the author introduces a host of memorable characters and a shattering secret before sending Jane on yet another arduous journey.

10. Starting Out in the Evening by Brian Morton (1997). Leonard Schiller is a novelist in his seventies, a second-string but respectable talent who produced only a small handful of books. Heather Wolfe is an attractive graduate student in her twenties. She read Schiller’s novels when she was growing up and they changed her life. When the ambitious Heather decides to write her master’s thesis about Schiller’s work and sets out to meet him—convinced she can bring Schiller back into the literary world’s spotlight—the unexpected consequences of their meeting alter everything in Schiller’s ordered life. What follows is a quasi-romantic friendship and intellectual engagement that investigates the meaning of art, fame, and personal connection.