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There is always something familiar about Sue Miller's novels -- in the characters, the situations, the drift of relationships, the language and structure -- and this has its disappointments but also its far more powerful charms. However short on innovations or thrilling surprises the story might be, it is generally so real and so much a part of the recognizable world that it seems to be lifted straight out of someone's life -- a life that, for all its natural messiness, lends itself to meaning.
This was true of "The Good Mother," the book that launched Miller's career, and it's true of her latest, "The Lake Shore Limited." The novel is haunted by Gus, a young prep school teacher who died on a plane in the 9/11 attacks. Though absent, he is at the center of the book, which divides its perspective among Leslie, Gus' sister; Billy (short for Wilhelmina), his lover; Rafe, an actor in a play Billy writes indirectly about Gus, and Sam, a friend and admirer of Leslie.
"The Lake Shore Limited" is also the play Billy writes, and the story begins with Leslie and her husband, Pierce, in Boston to see a preview. Leslie has invited their divorced friend Sam, viewing her introduction of Sam to Billy as a signal: It's OK to move on. But Billy, as we discover in her sections of the narrative, had moved on even before Gus died. Her play, about someone whose wife might or might not have been killed in a terrorist attack, raises this possibility for Leslie (and for the prospective love interest, Sam).
Meanwhile, Rafe, the actor who plays this perhaps bereaved man, is struggling with his own conflicted love for his once vibrant and beautiful wife, who is slowly dying of ALS (Lou Gehrig's disease). His brief connection with Billy clarifies both his own feelings and those of the character he plays.
As Miller weaves these people's stories together, the warp of one and the weft of the other creating a whole and clear pattern, what she's doing seems easy, the most natural of narratives. And yet, stepping back to consider how precisely she was able to get any one character from here to there is enough to show us the subtlety of her art.
At the center of this novel is artifice -- a play (which, as it's presented, seems far too short to be the real thing), but also the artifice people employ to hold their lives and loves together. And Miller's great accomplishment is in making this artifice at once perfectly apparent and deeply moving.
Ellen Akins is a writer in Cornucopia, Wis.