Custody battle is the focus in a sensitive first novel

The Good Mother, by Sue Miller. New York: Harper & Row. 310 pp. $17.95. The ingredients author Sue Miller brings together in ``The Good Mother'' are not unusual in modern fiction. There is Anna Dunlap, divorced mother of Molly, who has chosen to build a new life for herself and her four-year old daughter in Cambridge, Mass.

There is Molly's father, Brian, successful and remarried. And Leo, the artist, who gradually moves into a relationship with Anna. There is sex, and abortion, and the anguish of contested child custody.

In the background, clearly and tellingly delineated, are Anna's grandparents, especially her maternal grandfather, who seeks to dominate all who come into his sphere of influence, a spherein which moral ambiguity is impossible. His moral pronouncements are given weight and substance by his wealth -- ``new wealth,'' as his wife remarks wryly.

What is unusual about this first novel is the skillful treatment and evocative presentation of several complex moral dilemmas.

Miller's first-person narrative embraces two time frames: In the present are Anna's day-to-day struggles as a single mother; in the past, a recollective account of her childhood. In the narrative of present time there is a sharp, almost startling, clarity of focus.

But the episodes drawn from childhood are slightly misted; the novelist allows her lens to blur the background landscape, thus highlighting the figures in the foreground: Anna, her parents, grandparents, relatives, friends.

Memories of the past are redefined by Anna's measurement of them against the needs of the present. She finally understands that what appeared to be inattention on the part of her paternal grandparents was, instead, a kind of freedom she had never known until she spent a summer vacation at their home.

And her Aunt Babe, seen through Anna's childhood eyes as a kind of wondrous free spirit (though a black sheep to the rest of the family), is ultimately understood as a rebel testing -- and defeated by -- the confines of her father's (Anna's grandfather's) rigorously contained world.

Childhood, Anna discovers, is not always what it seemed to be.

What are the moral dilemmas Anna faces?

To remain in a loveless marriage with her husband for the sake of Molly, or seek self definition on her own. To live a celibate life as a single mother or enter into sexual liaisons with some of the men she meets. Whether to place her daughter for a portion of the day in a day care center, while she works part-time in a university laboratory. Whether to allow her daughter and her lover, Leo, to develop a quasi father-daughter relationship without the protection afforded by marriage.

The fulcrum on which the novel's plot pivots isthe allegation by Anna's ex-husband that Anna'slover has molested Molly, and the ensuing custody trial.

Miller's treatment of this high point of tension in the novel is dramatic, discreet, compassionate.

Each development in the legalprocess increases the tension. The drama heightens, the suspense builds,character is further developed, andthe latitude for choice logically narrowed.

Like a final judgment, the custody decision breaks over reader and character alike.

Everything required for an assessment of the rightness or wrongness of the events we have been witness to is in place. But the option is solely the reader's.

I found myself pondering the ambiguities, identifying and measuring my own guidelines, and then applying them to the fictive questions to see if they would fit.

Some measure of the novel's ability to get under the reader's skin is, perhaps, indicated by the fact that regardless of the direction my own adjudications took, I was left unsettled and unsatisfied by their ultimate implications.

While many readers may be put off by Miller's graphic treatment of her protagonist's relationship with her lover, I feel they will be drawn inexorably into the bind and bite of the novel's cause-and-effect world.

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