“The Lake Shore Limited”
By Sue Miller
Alfred A. Knopf ($25.95, 270 pp.)
“The play’s the thing…” and you know how the rest goes. These are Hamlet’s words to describe his plan to gin up some special lines for the local troupe to put in their play so that he can watch for a reaction from Claudius confirming his part in the murder of Hamlet’s father. Sue Miller’s dramatic new novel “The Lake Shore Limited” also very effectively uses the eponymous play within her novel to elicit telling responses from her characters, but she also subtly uses it to address the craft, nuance, and power of writing. While she hardly needs this clever device to tell a damn good story, it illustrates the depth and complexity of what is her best novel yet.
“The Lake Shore Limited” is the story of several couples whose lives intersect in the happy-go-lucky character Gus, who as the novel opens is already dead – killed as a young man in one of the ill-fated planes from Boston which crash the World Trade Center in the 9/11 horror. Miller, however, is not really interested in Gus’s story.
Her story is about those he left behind, and more importantly, those who are just plain left behind from all the various separations that life throws at us. We suffer with a death of a loved one, of course; but perhaps of greater impact can be the loss of children to their own lives, or loss through divorce, or loss by disabling illness, or even the loss from an empty relationship when there is no real physical loss at all. “The Lake Shore Limited” is about the changes which these events of life force upon us.
The novel is told in sections focused on each of the inter-related characters. His sister Leslie, so much older than Gus, takes him in when their parents divorce and essentially abandon them. She and her stable physician husband Pierce live in rural Vermont. Sam, an architect, is a widower and father of three estranged children who becomes close to Leslie while building his own second home near her in Vermont. Billy, a playwright, has made many bad choices in men and enjoys, for awhile, an easy-going relationship with Gus. Rafe is a middle-aged, moderately successful Boston actor playing the lead in Billy’s play, “The Lake Shore Limited,” while caring for his cancer-ridden wife. In a reunion of sorts, they all appear at an early preview of the play. It is this ensemble nature of the novel that allows Miller to peel the proverbial onion and present the complexity of all of these relationships.
Perhaps the most interesting is that of Billy and Gus, for she is about to tell him that it is over when the 9/11 tragedy happens. She understands this separation is necessary while working alone at her office one day: “It was kind of a dump…The paint was old and there were water stains on the ceiling. But it was private. It was quiet…Most of all, there was not Gus…This is what she loved, this, being alone, being sentient only for herself. She didn’t want Gus noticing things, admiring her, ignoring all that was unpleasant about her, insisting on his version of who she was.”
But she never gets to tell him, and in fact never tells anyone of her planned breakup. When he is killed, she is suddenly free without having had to break his heart. Faced with disposing of his personal belongings in their shared apartment, she says: “There was so much of Gus’s life she didn’t know. Who would take care of all this? Who would it belong to? Who would dispose of it? Who was in charge of Gus now?” It is not until she writes her play about a terrorist bombing of a commuter train in Chicago that she can shed these troubling feelings of dishonesty and guilt.
Each of Miller’s characters brings a different perspective to the play. Leslie and Pierce drive to Boston to see it and to have dinner with Billy and their single friend Sam in hopes he and Billy will connect. The play moves them, and they talk about it during intermission, they talk about it at dinner afterwards, and they talk until Leslie “wasn’t sure she wanted to listen to them offer their notions about the play anymore anyway. It was something she needed to think through herself.”
Billy, however, doesn’t really fully understand the meaning of her own play until Rafe’s weeping expression of the last line. She recognizes that the craft of writing is more than just writing, as she tells Sam when they are alone at the end of the dinner: “I mean, I wrote it, of course. I even wrote how I wanted him to say it. But in the end, it’s just a word…And he said it perfectly. Wonderfully…It was so clear to me all of a sudden. A revelation.”
Just as Rafe’s reading helped Billy understand her play, her words helped him understand his own feelings for his dying wife and her seemingly endless need for his care. “It was of a whole to him, like that. He felt as he said Gabriel’s lines that he was truly understanding them. He had the sense of being Gabriel…accepting the implications for him of [his wife’s] fate, whatever it was to be. Accepting the randomness of terror’s reach into her life as his fate.”
The play’s the thing which allows Miller to expose and explore the complicated emotional struggles of her characters. It shows how great writing brings on good thinking and ultimately self-awareness. By the end of the novel, her characters understand that although they have in some way been left behind, they can still go forward again.
Billy finds an old picture of Gus among his things and reflects: “Gone, of course, because of death – Gus’s terrible end. But gone, too, because of life, because of the alterations of time, the reshaping of the self over the long years…No more Gus. No more Billy either. Not as they were then. Taken away – by death, by life, inexorable life. Billy felt tears at the back of her throat, but she didn’t yield to them.”