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Epiphanies of Self-Awareness

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THE DISTINGUISHED GUEST

By Sue Miller

HarperCollins, 282 pp.,$24

Understanding ourselves and our families is often the work of a lifetime. And it is this life work that Sue Miller examines in her fourth novel, ''The Distinguished Guest.''

Although ''The Distinguished Guest'' focuses on the dilemmas of caring for an aging parent, it also touches on the timeless struggle to make sense of family history. The distinguished guest of the book's title is Lily Maynard. She found literary fame at the age of 72 when she published a memoir of her life as the wife and eventual divorcee of an integrationist minister in Chicago.

While waiting to relocate to a retirement community and struggling with a debilitating disease, Lily has come to stay with her middle-aged architect son, Alan, and his French-born wife, Gaby.

Lily spends her mornings rereading and destroying the letters on which she based her memoirs. In the afternoons, she recounts a personal version of her life history to Linnett Baird, a freelance journalist working on a magazine profile of her.

The plot moves back and forth between the cold, barely civil mother-son relationship of Lily and Alan, the scarred but healing marriage of Alan and Gaby, and the strange new friendship developing between Lily and Linnett.

The book's best moments are the epiphanies of self-awareness. In rereading her husband's letters, Lily comes to realize how she has adulterated their past in the retelling. ''The shame of it! the endless pitiable shame of knowing yourself so badly! For Lily had thought, of course,... as she wrote the memoir, that she was peeling off layer after layer of herself, getting closer and closer to some essential core.... What arrogance to have presumed she understood the truth!''


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