Animals mounted on a wall typically conjure a Gothic image: a dark inn or sweeping mansion, brimming with beasts, where no one dares to sleep.
Lydia Millet's "Magnificence" (W.W. Norton, 255 pages, $25.95), a book that completes three related novels ("How the Dead Dream" and "Ghost Lights" are the other two) is set in such a potentially creepy setting. Susan Lindley is a woman in her 40s whose life is forever changed when her husband is murdered. He had traveled to Central America to search for her missing boss, T. -- a real estate man who goes through a huge transformation. T. makes it back to California, but Susan and her daughter, Casey, are left to deal with their broken lives. Millet's characters are people who are searching for more. Casey has been in a wheelchair ever since a car accident years earlier. At the start of the book, she confesses to her mother that she's a phone sex worker. Susan, it turns out, feels like she murdered her husband. She slept with many men over the course of her marriage to Hal, and in "Ghost Lights" Hal caught her in the act and fled to Central America to search for T. but also to find himself.
Susan "pursued a certain state of being known -- sex as a form of fame, wanting to be instilled in other people's memories. She'd wanted to make herself stay with them, an image in a great hall of figures. She'd thought she would live more that way."
Then, she inherits a great uncle's mansion. She moves by herself into a palatial house filled with taxidermied animals -- her great uncle's huge obsession -- and notes the irony.
"When she was married and slept around she'd lived in the desire of men, in all that ambient wanting, where once she felt noticed. Now she lived in the aftermath of what they wanted, among the phantoms of men's desire -- not the same men, but men all the same."
When she sees the house for the first time, she feels an instant connection: "Here it was lush, there was a hidden splendor."
Millet's writing is as lush as the house Susan lives in. There's a marvelous musicality to her prose; she's a writer who tackles human emotions with scientific precision and an artist's voice. "But this life was something else by an order of magnitude -- a state of exuberance, a lazy abundance that bristled with energy."
There's a cataloging going on here of the ways that people navigate the world once their world has shifted; Millet does a fine job of breathing life into people who are surrounded by dead things.
Michele Filgate is a book critic and indie bookseller in New York.