There’s no doubt that Sue Miller is an exemplary storyteller, her chapters unfurling like a Vermeer painting, particularly in this elegant novel of life, love, pain and loss. The narrative is told from the differing perspectives of four characters: insular Leslie, who has settled into a rather comfortable marriage to Pierce; Billy, the self-absorbed author of
a play called "The Lake Shore Limited"; Sam, a friend of Leslie’s who still harbors desires for her; and Rafe, an actor playing the principle role in Billy’s play and whose own life so closely mirrors the action on stage.
Six years after the tragedy of 9/11, Leslie is still devastated by the event that took the life of younger brother, Gus. While Gus was also Billy‘s lover - and she was naturally shattered - Leslie is kidding herself if she thinks she’s stopped thinking about the moment of his death, along with the pain and loss. Perhaps Billy’s new play will be the panacea she so sorely needs, a celebration of Leslie’s own return to life as she imagines how thrilled Gus would have been to be going along.
But the performance unexpectedly churns up unsettled feelings with its
complications and ugliness when the lead character, Gabriel, is relieved when he learns his wife has probably just died in a devastating terrorist attack. Although the woman’s safe return moves Leslie, she doesn’t quite understand why. She’s left blindsided, unable to understand what Billy is saying and what she was intending.
Afterward at dinner with Sam and Pierce, she forgets Billy’s congratulatory bouquet of flowers, also harboring a sense of renunciation in introducing Sam to Billy. Leslie is all too aware of waiting for Billy, of the usual anxiety mixed with something indefinable left over from the play, and a sense that since
Gus's death, their friendship is not what it used to be.
Rafe knows that the play was about him. His wife, Lauren, has Lou Gehrig’s Disease and lies in a drugged sleep, her body almost immovable.
Only her thick, labored breathing attests to her life still held captive. Hounded by his limitations and sad desperation, he "weeps with a tender sorrow." On a sudden impulse, he sleeps with Billy, who “like some mythical child” along with her dog, Rueben, seems to offer him the solace he needs,
though he’s plagued by the sense of shame for having wronged Lauren. His memories remain vivid of Billy’s body opening to him and moving in response to him.
Unveiling the moral dilemmas of her characters, Miller builds each character one upon another as they begin to learn how deeply life can disappoint you: Billy, always the narcissist,
and all too willing to mine the lives of those around her for her literary
ideas; Rafe, blinded by guilt at his attraction to Billy and torn over Lauren’s illness; Leslie, with her sense of excitement and possibility at seeing Sam again; and Sam, who is drawn to Leslie yet feels a sense of disconnection from the impulses that had brought him here.
Throughout, the ghost of Gus remains like “a force in the universe” - his sunny disposition and boyish eagerness for life, his images and pictures, memories
of him perpetually hanging like puffs of clouds in the characters’ lives. Miller gorgeously manipulates these people, getting to the heart of their thoughts and insecurities, exploring the alterations of time, the years of reshaping the self. There’s the sense that finally a complicated set of emotions are laid bare in this beautiful, intuitive and endlessly evocative novel.