06 March 2017

An 'Other Novel' from Margaret Millar

Wives and Lovers
Collected Millar: The Master at Her Zenith
Margaret Millar
New York: Syndicate, 2016

The thirteenth of Margaret Millar's twenty-five novels, Wives and Lovers is often relegated to a spot near the end of the author's bibliographies. The one included in this third volume of the Collected Millar does just that, placing it after the "Paul Pyre Novels", the "Inspector Sands Novels", the "Tom Aragon Novels", and the "Novels of Suspense" as one of her "Other Novels". The category is a small one, shared with only Experiment in Springtime, which I've not read. Until last week, I hadn't read Wives and Lovers either, though I'd long been curious about it. Why the distinction? What makes it so different?

The novel is set in California's Channel City (read: Santa Barbara), fairly familiar territory for Millar. As with so many of her novels, focus shifts between characters, first landing on Hazel Philip, assistant to dentist Gordon Foster. It is a brutally hot day, made somewhat bearable by the absence of patients. Only two people enter the practice, the first being Ruby MacCormick, "a friend of one of his nieces from up north." Just last week, Hazel had helped Ruby get a job at her ex-husband's restaurant out on the pier. Now, the girl needs help again.
Gordon dried his hands on a linen towel. "Who was at the door?"
"The girl, the one who was here last week."
"Ruby MacCormick."
"Well," he said carefully. "What did she want?"
"She's still here."
"She wants a room. She's moving. I was just trying to find a place for her to go."
Did you catch that... "he said carefully"?

Gordon's wife, Elaine, is the second person to walk through the door. She reminds him of her plans to take the children to the beach.
Elaine believed that Gordon could have been a real doctor if he had more initiative, or if he'd met her earlier in life, so that she could have supplied the initiative. As it was, when they met, Gordon was already a dentist, and even Elaine's considerable powers couldn't make him into anything else. Their marriage had been coloured by Elaine's bile-green feeling that she had been cheated, that Gordon should have been a real doctor because she herself had all the attributes of a perfect doctor's wife.
At the end of the day, Hazel returns to the house she shares with her unemployed cousin, her simple-minded brother, and his petite pregnant wife. Ruth, the cousin, goes on about household finances and the suit she'll wear when presenting herself before the School Board. Ruth wants to teach again.

But why isn't Ruth teaching now? Santa Barbara has a shortage of teachers. And did you notice that Ruby showed up at Gordon's office with all her belongings? Why is she suddenly out on the street?

There are many little mysteries in Wives and Lovers; what sets it apart from nearly every other Millar novel is that the most serious crime is the stealing of a pair of hedge clippers. There are no bodies. I spoil nothing in writing this. Consider cover copy. Here is Syndicate's description of Vanish in an Instant, the novel that preceded Wives and Lovers:
In this classic noir tale of blurred guilt and flawed innocence, a cynical lawyer uncovers the desperate lives of a group connected only by a gruesome murder.
And here's the description of Beast in View, the novel that followed Wives and Lovers:
Hailed as one of the greatest psychological mysteries ever written, Beast in View remains as freshly sinister today as the day it was first published.
Now, compare with that for Wives and Lovers:
A sincere compassionate novel about the complications of married life, and the love, loathing, pain, loyalty, disappointments and friendship that grow out of marriage.
What makes Wives and Lovers like other Millar novels is that characters are key. What makes it so interesting is that criminal acts are always a possibility. Lives become unstable, desperation takes hold, jealousy and pettiness rear their ugly heads, and the reader braces for violence that never comes.

In other words, Wives and Lovers is a novel about the lives most of us live.

He said he'd like to take a little trip.
     "To San Francisco again?" Elaine said with sweet irony.
     "What do you mean, again?"
     "I only mean that you seem to have had such a gay time there a couple of months ago."
Object: A 553 page trade-size paperback, comprised of Vanish in an Instant, Wives and Lovers, Beast in ViewAn Air That Kills and The Listening Walls, along with a brief Introduction by Tom Nolan. The Master at Her Zenith is the first third volume – though first to be released – in Syndicate's Collected Millar. I purchased my copy last September. Price: C$19.99.

Access: Published just six months ago, The Master at Her Zenith is easily found in good bookstores. Wives and Lovers itself was first published in 1954 by Random House (above). It appears there was no second printing. Twenty years later, Avon published a mass-market paperback edition. There has been only one translation: Erwecket die Liebe nicht (Düsseldorf: Dörner, 1964).

Nearly all our libraries let us down. Whether separate or as part of the Master at Her Zenith, Wives and Lovers is held only by Library and Archives Canada, the Kitchener Public Library, the Toronto Public Library, and six of our universities.

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  1. Since we have no good bookstores anymore, I guess it's Amazon for me.

    1. I recommend going directly to the publisher, Patti. Syndicate is offering subscriptions to all seven volumes, shipped the month before their respective pub dates, for US$99.99 (a savings of twenty-four dollars). Here's the link: The Complete Margaret Miller