Four multilayered characters --- Leslie, Billy, Rafe and Sam --- come to life in the pages of this devastating and elegant novel set in 2007. They intersect in the repercussions of the memory of Gus, who died on September 11, 2001 when the plane on which he was a passenger slammed into the World Trade Center. We meet Gus's older sister, Leslie, whose closeness to her brother had been as maternal as sisterly. As the book opens, Leslie and her physician husband, Pierce, are preparing to attend a play written by Billy, who had been Gus's girlfriend. Leslie has never truly quit grieving for Gus; as she gets ready to see Billy again and watch his play, she’s emotional. She plans to introduce her friend, Sam, to Billy. Since Leslie's feelings toward Sam are complicated, she feels almost as if she is presenting him to Billy.
Billy's play, The Lake Shore Limited, is a story about how an act of terrorism impacts a marriage. Although Leslie repeatedly assures Sam and Pierce that she is fine with the subject matter, certain themes reverberate for her over a period of time, changing some of her attitudes toward her own tragedy. The star of the play is an actor named Rafe, who is dealing with what some might regard as an act of terrorism in his own life. His wife is in the long, slow decline of Lou Gehrig's disease. Their hard-won contentment following a roller-coaster period has been shattered by the illness, leaving Rafe unmoored by his wife's deterioration. This situation leaves Rafe vulnerable to a variety of things, including an epiphany during his acting that not only opens his eyes toward his own relationship but also enables him to use the emotions he experiences during his revelation to fuel his acting.
We know of Sam from Leslie's memories of meeting him and his wife. As a realtor, she had long ago showed Sam properties. While he bought one, and began designing and building a house for his wife, he and Leslie became close friends. Leslie describes a tremendous yearning she felt toward Sam. When Sam narrates his side of the story, we discover how he felt toward her. Now, as he meets Billy, he is confused by his emotions toward the playwright.
As Sue Miller peels back the truth, layer by layer, we learn the nuances of the secret surrounding Billy and Gus's relationship. One problem that troubled Gus during their time together was the way in which Billy used their private jokes and touch points in her screenplays. This theme echoes throughout The Lake Shore Limited, in the play Rafe stars in and Leslie attends. A reader can't help but wonder if the same holds true for Miller as the author of this book --- a dizzying but intriguing type of Russian nesting doll notion. Those theories aside, Miller is often spoken of as a national treasure for her ability to draw readers into her imagined world and then stir our emotions. In her latest book, she continues to dazzle us with her complicated, aching, wholly real characters, whose elegantly interwoven lives fascinate.
Reviewed by Terry Miller Shannon (firstname.lastname@example.org) on December 30, 2010
The Lake Shore Limited