Friday, June 04, 2010

Review of "The Lakeshore Limited" by Sue Miller - Exploring Post-9/11 Grieving

I love discovering a writer whose work is new to me. Boston-based best selling author, Sue Miller, just came onto my radar screen with her latest novel, "The Lake Shore Limited." I was aware of several of her previous works - "The Senator's Wife" and "The Good Mother" - but had not yet read them.

In this work, "The Lake Shore Limited," Miller wades into the realm of post-9/11 grieving complications. A central theme is the question: "How does one properly grieve the loss of someone with whom the relationship was falling apart when death intervened? What are the rules that govern such a situation?" In a broader context, Miller seems to be asking the questions: "What does it mean for the four main characters in this novel - and all of humanity, by extension - to play by the rules or to choose to break the rules? What are the consequences of those choices to obey or to flaunt or to make up new rules?"

Let me offer three brief excerpts that will show how Miller and her characters explicate the issue of rules. In this first example, Gus - who dies on one of the planes ouot of Boston that was flown into the Twin Towers - brings his girlfriend, Billy, to meet for the first time his big sister, Leslie.

"They heard rushing footsteps above them, and then Leslie came down the narrow staircase, emerging into their view feet first on the steep ladderlike stairs. Billy was startled as she descended by how different Leslie was from Gus - soft, almost plump, where he was bluff, dark where he was blond. And there was something grave, something serious, about her, which you couldn't have said of Gus, though when she turned from embracing him to hold out her hand to Billy, her face opened in a smile of dazzling warmth. 'Billy,' she said. 'I think I would have known you anywhere.' Her hand itself was warm, her grip firm. Billy liked her immediately, just as Gus had promised she would.

They sat in the side yard, and Leslie brought out a tray with a pitcher and served them lemonade. Just as she finished pouring their glasses, one of the children across the road called loudly to another, 'That's not the rules.' And the other answered, 'Yeah, well, the rules stink.'

'So true,' Billy said, and Leslie laughed." (pages 126-7)

Ah, yes. There you have it.

Sam, an architect who forms quasi-romantic and tortured friendship relationships with both Leslie and with Billy, is described by the narrator as musing on his early life - his family, his first marriage and his college days.

"The problem was that even then Sam didn't feel he'd escaped them sufficiently - their world, their way of seeing things, their rules. It seemed to him he was still faking it, four years after leaving home.

The rules of the college world had seemed like those of another country when he first got there, so different were they from the rules at home. Even the clothes he had brought with him were wrong. Sam sold them at the local used-clothing store within a few weeks of arriving on campus, and with the money from that and some of what he's earned working at the grain cooperative over the long, hot high school summers, he bought several versions of the uniform the prep school boys wore - Levi's, not slacks; blue work shirts or Brooks Brothers button-downs; striped rep ties; two tweed jackets. This made him more comfortable in his body, but he was still so unsure of himself socially that he sometimes waited to hear other people's opinions before he announced his own." (Pages 198-9)

What uniforms of apparel and speech do we choose to clothe ourselves in to cover our nakedness and insecurities?

Finally, Sam, in conversation with his second wife, Claire - to whom he remained married only a short time - struggles with his rebellous teenage son from his first marriage.

"'You've got to do something about him,' Claire told Sam over and over as Jack turned fifteen, and then sixteen. What what could Sam do if Jack simply wouldn't follow the rules, wouldn't accept punishment, wouldn't change, wouldn't see anything wrong with the life he was leading?" (Page 223)

Miller explores these questions of rules within a structure that has each of the four major characters explain the world and the action of the novel from their individual perspectives. These characters are: Leslie, Gus's sister and the wife of a pediatric oncologist; Billy, Gus's girlfriend and a playwright; Sam, the architect; and Rafe, an actor in Billy's play and a man whose wife is dying of ALS. Since Sam is an architect, I will use an architectural metaphor to explain my reaction to the novel's strucutre. It is as though each of the characters and the narrator are sketching out for the reader "elevation drawings" that show the view of the world and the "house each character inhabits" from where they stand at that moment in time.

The writing is elegant, and the descriptions of Boston and Vermont are told in the voice of someone who loves and celebrates the uniqueness of both worlds - urban and rustic.

I look forward to reading more Miller.



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