The moving story of a mother and son that touches the deepest concerns about love, art, family, and life. Lily Maynard is proud, chilly, difficult, and has become a famous writer at age seventy-two. Now, stricken with Parkinson’s disease and staying with her architect son Alan, Lily must cope with her fading powers as well as with disturbing memories of the events that estranged her from her children and ended her marriage. For Alan, her visit raises old questions about his relationship with her, about the choices he has made in his own life, and about the nature of love, disappointment, and grief. Profound and moving, The Distinguished Guest reveals a family trying to understand the meaning of its life together, while confronting inevitable loss and the vision of an immeasurably altered future.
“Ms. Miller depicts [her characters] with grace and elegance, enriching their perceptions with strands of connecting images and intertwined history…A very moving book.”– “New York Times Book Review””As in the work of Jane Austen…Sue Miller’s tale of a proud, elderly woman who visits and bedevils her son…is genuinely adult fiction.”
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In 1982, when she was seventy-two years old, Lily Roberts Maynard published her first book. It was put out by Tabor Press, a small feminist publishing house in Chicago. Tabor Press was named for and funded by the estate of Judith Tabor, whose husband had made a fortune in refrigerated transport vehicles. Though their names, Judith and Gabriel Tabor, appeared linked on plaques here and there in Chicago – in public libraries and museums and hospital wings – Tabor Press had been Judith Tabor’s own project, endowed by her after her husband’s death,
and run exclusively by women.
The first printing of Lily Maynard’s book was only five hundred copies, but they were beautiful books, carefully designed and produced, with marbled endpapers, and a woodcut reproduced at the start of each chapter, a church with a narrow spire. Lily loved to hold her book, loved to turn the thick, cream-colored pages slowly, to read her own words, so transformed by the authority – the heaviness, as she felt it – of print, that she was often startled by them, by their power. The book was called The Integrationist: A Spiritual Memoir.
Tabor Press was at that time run by a committee of four women who rotated being chair. As it happened, the woman in charge of the watch on which Lily Maynard’s book was published, a thin, energetic person named Betsy Leaming, was also the person in the house most interested in commercial success, and the only one who understood anything about publicity. She sent Lily’s book, with a cover letter, to the editors of women’s pages for a number of major newspapers in the Midwest. The letter summarized Lily’s life, quickly: the cloistered, wealthy Minneapolis background, her forced removal from college by her father after she voted for Roosevelt in the 1932 election, her marriage and transformed life in Chicago with Paul Maynard, a radical young Protestant minister called to an inner-city church. It told of their bitter struggle and eventual divorce over religious and ideological issues, centering on integration and the black power movement; and then, in Lily’s own words, “the slow learning about what was left.” The letter laid out some of the various angles an interviewer might take with this material. Perhaps best of all, it enclosed a photograph of Lily with her pure-white hair sculpted back into a bun, and the piercing dark eyes. She had been a remarkably handsome younger woman in her unsmiling, sober way, but age had softened her face to a melancholy and gentler beauty.
Lily was a good interview, it turned out, by turns elegant and cantankerous. Quotable. She discovered she liked to talk. She liked the sense of public weight her opinions began to acquire, and this made her even more quotable. Often as she sat back and made a pronouncement, a nearly mischievous smile would lighten her somber face.