By Ron Charles
Wednesday, April 21, 2010; C04
THE LAKE SHORE LIMITED
By Sue Miller
270 pp. $25.95
There are several contenders (Anita Shreve, Gail Godwin), but Sue Miller might be the best poster child for the poison condescension bestowed by the term "women's literature." She didn't publish her first novel, "The Good Mother" (1986), until she was in her 40s, but since then she's been prolific and popular (another mark against her), writing about families and marriages, infidelity and divorce -- what we call "literary fiction" when men write about those things. Last year, a grudging review of "The Senator's Wife" in That Other East Coast Newspaper claimed that Miller's novels "feature soap-opera plots," a mischaracterization broad enough to apply to any story that doesn't involve space travel or machine guns.
Miller's exquisite new novel, "The Lake Shore Limited," is so sophisticated and thoughtful that it should either help redeem the term "women's literature" or free her from it once and for all. Several times in these pages someone refers to the relentless psychological analysis found in Henry James's novels, which seems a far more relevant influence than TV soap operas. In fact, "The Lake Shore Limited" may be the closest thing we'll get to a James response to 9/11: no drama, no crisis, barely any action at all -- just a deeply affecting examination of the thoughts and feelings of four people still moving in the shadow of that tragedy.
The novel has an unusual structure: In the opening section, Leslie has traveled to Boston with her husband to see a new play called "The Lake Shore Limited." The playwright, a younger woman nicknamed Billy, was once the lover of Leslie's brother, and the two women have remained friends -- distant friends -- since he died in the Sept. 11 attacks six years earlier. Miller teases out the complicated feelings of affection and resistance between Leslie and Billy a little, but then the curtain rises, literally, and the play begins.
What follows for the next 16 pages is a stilted but oddly compelling drama about an intellectual man confronted by the news that his wife has just been killed in a Chicago subway bombing. The play consists of several angry, intense conversations. Enflamed with grief, the man's son accuses his father of being grateful that he's free now to remarry, but then the man's mistress denounces him as unfeeling and cruel. "It doesn't matter to you if [she's] dead, it doesn't matter to you," one of the characters says, half in amazement, half in accusation. "You're so . . . detached." Everyone is baffled by this new widower's disaffection, his mysterious blankness in the face of a horrible tragedy.
Miller doesn't reproduce the script entirely, but she provides a vivid experience of the play, along with the quality of the actors' performances and Leslie's troubled reaction in the audience. "Where did it come from?" she wonders. "So much in this play, as in others she'd seen, came from things she knew about Billy, about her life. Why would she have imagined a thing like this? It seems so ugly, so awful, really."
The animus behind this play remains the heart of the novel, and if you commit to the considerable intellectual and emotional demands of "The Lake Shore Limited," it'll disrupt the equilibrium of your life, too. The story moves back and forth in time but always returns to that performance, ending when the theatrical run draws to a close a few weeks later. Leslie can't get the play out of her mind and resists what it might suggest about Billy's relationship with her late brother. Billy, meanwhile, protests too much that the play contains no personal revelations. "Please, please, give me some credit," she begs a friend. "Give the imagination some credit. No one really does. No one believes in it anymore. Everything always has to be autobiographical, somehow." But the more we see of her past life with Leslie's charming brother and the more she struggles to articulate her response to his death, the more we understand what inspired this drama. "People think they know what you're feeling," she tells a friend. "What you must be feeling. And because it's easier not to expose yourself, what you're truly feeling, you don't disabuse them. You go through the motions for them. That's why, I think, I wanted to write the play -- about a man who doesn't feel what he's supposed to."
Miller's insistent examination of that predicament grows increasingly profound and unsettling. The most moving response to the play comes from the lead actor, a man named Rafe, whose wife is dying of Lou Gehrig's disease. Assuming the play is only about 9/11, he doesn't realize at first how much it resonates with the dark tones of his own life. Flashbacks take us through Rafe's marriage, the grinding cruelty of his wife's illness and the ineffable mixture of joy and sorrow that characterizes their time together as the end approaches. In one of several catch-your-breath scenes, his wife tells him, "It must be awful to sometimes wish me dead." Dropping a statement like that into a moment of real intimacy while helping us understand how it can be both true and deceptive is the miracle of "The Lake Shore Limited."
This is emotional terrain some people won't feel comfortable in, but it's gorgeously drawn and told with stark honesty. The theatrical performance serves as a surprisingly effective stage for Miller's rueful reflection on what actors we all are -- and how unfairly we convict ourselves for the impurity of our affection. Who doesn't, after all, "wish to imagine what life could be, how it could change, if you were unencumbered"? That doesn't make us murderers or monsters, but it leaves us stuck, like Billy, "trying to calibrate her grief." There's some comfort in realizing the universality of that horrible calculation, and that's just one of the rewards of this novel.
Charles is the fiction editor of Book World. You can follow him on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/roncharles.