The Lake Shore Limited, by Sue Miller (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2010)
Jacket summary: "Four unforgettable characters beckon you into this spellbinding new novel from Sue Miller, the author of 2008's heralded best seller The Senator's Wife. First among them is Wilhelmina -- Billy -- Gertz, small as a child, fiercely independent, powerfully committed to her work as a playwright. The story itself centers on The Lake Shore Limited -- a play Billy has written about an imagined terrorist bombing of that train as it pulls into Union Station in Chicago, and about a man waiting to hear the fate of his estranged wife, who is traveling on it. Billy had waited in just such a way on 9/11 to hear whether her lover, Gus, was on one of the planes used in the attack.
"The novel moves from the snow-filled woods of Vermont to the rainy brick sidewalks of Boston as the lives of the other characters intersect and interweave with Billy's: Leslie, Gus's sister, still driven by grief years after her brother's death; Rafe, the actor who rises to greatness in a performance inspired by a night of incandescent lovemaking; and Sam, a man so irresistibly drawn to Billy after he sees the play that so clearly displays the terrible conflicts and ambivalence of her situation.
"How Billy has come to create the play out of these emotions, how it is then created anew on the stage, how the performance itself touches and changes the other characters' lives -- these form the thread that binds them all together and drives the novel compulsively forward."
Opening line: "Because it was still afternoon, because she was in a strange room, because she was napping rather than sleeping ('I'll just lie down for a bit and see what happens,' she'd told Pierce) -- because of all this, she was aware of herself as she dreamed, at some level conscious of working to subvert the dream she was having, to make it come out another way, different from the way it seemed to be headed."
My take: Clearly, I liked this one; it's been a while since I've read a novel in one sitting, though it has happened and I do enjoy me some Sue Miller (and apparently some bad grammar, too).
As noted on the jacket, the novel centers on the play from which it takes its title, and how it resonates with each of the main characters. In an early chapter, we "see" the play open in previews, and learn the story firsthand. Protagonist Gabriel, an aloof, middle-aged college professor type, is enjoying his solitude at home (pointedly ignoring the phone, where a mysterious woman's voice tells him they have to talk) when his grown son Alex arrives in a panicked rage, banging on the door, outraged that his father hasn't yet heard about the terrorist bombing of the train that's carrying Gabriel's wife and Alex's mother, Elizabeth, back home. Alex and his wife grow frustrated and then furious at Gabriel's taking the news so calmly, but the truth is, he's not sure how to react. Their marriage, at least lately, has been a rocky one, and we learn that Gabriel's been having an affair. Though he admits it only reluctantly, he does think for the briefest moment that Elizabeth's death would relieve him of the painful decisions before him, and free him to pursue happiness with his mistress, Anita, if indeed that's what he wants. Hours later, when a badly bruised but very much alive Elizabeth walks in the front door, Gabriel speaks her name with an excruciating mix of joy and regret.
Perhaps no one understands Gabriel's complicated feelings better than his creator, playwright Billy, who lost her lover Gus in the 9/11 attacks several years earlier. Leslie, Gus's heartbroken sister, seeks solace and companionship with someone who shares her grief, and insists on Billy's playing a starring role in several memorial events, introducing her as Gus's fiancee and demanding that she accept a share of the victim's compensation money she ultimately receives. Leslie's generous grief, though, coupled with the public nature of Gus's death, makes Billy loath to admit the truth: she'd known for weeks, possibly months, that she wasn't in love with Gus, and had planned to leave him once he returned from the trip that ended so abruptly.
Leslie, although she's come to Boston and the play partly to give Billy permission to "move on" and begin dating again (despite Pierce's gentle suggestions that Billy may have given herself said permission years earlier), and even to introduce a suitable prospect (her old friend and one-time crush, Sam), is stunned to see this played out on the stage. Did Billy really not love Gus at all? Did she feel just a flicker of relief at his death? While Leslie adores Billy and seems almost desperate to maintain their connection, she begins to wonder exactly what this connection means for both of them.
Despite their initial bemusement and mild irritation at being so obviously "set up" by Leslie, Sam and Billy do find themselves drawn to one another. For Sam, the response comes almost immediately after seeing the play, and then meeting the unexpectedly warm and welcoming playwright. He himself is no stranger to complex relationships, having lost his first wife to cancer while their three sons were still children; his second, the lovely but snobbish Claire, to divorce scarce months after their "dream home" was completed; and his grown children, well ... they're all alive, but let's just say it's complicated. For Billy, the attraction begins later, when an innocuous walk-in-the-park date leads to a fall, a broken wrist, and a trip to the emergency room that show her what Sam is made of.
Of course, the play's impact hinges on Gabriel's reaction to Elizabeth's homecoming in the final scene. So, as it turns out, does the actor, Rafe's, career. After solid but not-quite-perfect performances in the previews, Rafe nails the closing scene on opening night. He finds himself digging deep into his own reservoir of experience with love, intimacy, and regret; after an on-again, off-again relationship that stretches back to college, his own wife, Lauren, is dying of ALS. His feelings for Lauren are about as convoluted as Billy's for Gus and Leslie, and the night before opening, the two share a single, perfect night that lends the final je ne sais quoi to his performance.
I almost called this book "chick lit at its finest," before I remembered that I was banning that term from my literary vocabulary. Yes, the primary audience for this book will probably be women, and yes, it's primarily about love and relationships. It's still a good book, with believable characters and intriguing questions. An excellent summer read.
- Ithaca, New York
- MWF, now officially 42, loves long walks on the beach and laughing with friends ... oh, wait. By day, I'm a mid-level university administrator reluctant to be more specific on a public forum. Nights and weekends, though, I'm a homebody with strong nerdist leanings. I'm never happier than when I'm chatting around the fire, playing board games, cooking up some pasta, and/or road-tripping with my family and friends. I studied psychology and then labor economics in school, and I work in higher education. From time to time I get smug, obsessive, or just plain boring about some combination of these topics, especially when inequality, parenting, or consumer culture are involved. You have been warned.