by Sue Miller; Knopf, 2010; 270 pages; $25.95
There's a performance of a play at the start of this subtly rendered new novel from Sue Miller, author of The Good Mother and The Senator's Wife. To describe stage action in novelistic terms is risky at best. That Miller carries off such an experiment with such confidence, even as she also has the scene inform the remainder of her novel, is evidence of her wonderful eye for detail and her understated empathy for her characters' very human flaws.
The play is called The Lake Shore Limited and deals with one man's response to a terrorist attack on a Chicago train that his wife is possibly a passenger on. His guilt over how he reacts to that news as he awaits word on his wife's fate is at the center of that play and ultimately affects the hearts and minds of each of Miller's main characters.
Leslie is the wife of a respected doctor. She has been restless since the tragic death of her younger brother, Gus, who was on one of the planes that were part of the 9/11 tragedy. It is Leslie who organizes the evening years later to see the play written by the woman who was living with Gus in Boston at the time of his death.
Billy (she's actually Wilhemina) is the author of the play that Leslie feels hits too close to guilt that still remains. Billy, in fact, channels her own guilt, for only she knows that their relationship was over by the time Gus boarded the plane that morning.
Rafe is the actor who has the lead in Billy's play. The probing he does to find the truth in the character he is portraying has enabled him to respond to his own shame, especially about his response to his wife, who is succumbing to Lou Gehrig's disease.
Sam is a charming, gangly architect who bought property from Leslie years ago. He has lost two wives — one to cancer, one to divorce — and remains estranged from his three children because of the second marriage. He is included in Leslie's theater evening in the hopes that he and Billy will be attracted to each other despite Sam's attraction to Leslie years ago.
How Billy's play affects and ultimately guides these four through the next few months is the hushed brilliance of The Lake Shore Limited. Lives intersect; memories comfort and cause pain. Characters learn — as must we — to embrace the truth that "Things arrived in your life. They descended upon you." Then, according to Sue Miller, grace arrives in the quietest ways.
Steven Whitton is a professor of English at Jacksonville State University.