Best-selling author and Smith College professor Sue Miller has published one memoir and nine novels, two of which--The Good Mother (1986) and Inventing the Abbotts (1987)--have been made into movies. Also Reviewed Lost in the Forest ( Selection July/Aug 2005) and The Senator's Wife ( Mar/Apr 2008).
The Story: Four people wrestle with their reactions to a play, The Lake Shore Limited, following its Boston premier. Its creator, Wilhelmina (aka Billy), wrote the piece, about a man's oddly detached response to the news of his wife's death, as a means of coping with her own reaction to the death of her lover, Gus, in the 9/11 attacks six years before. Leslie, Gus's sister, has maintained ties with Billy, and, still mourning his loss, cannot accept what the play suggests about their relationship. Sam, a divorced architect invited to join Leslie and her husband at the premier, and Rafe, the play's lead, see disturbing parallels between the drama onstage and their own lives.
Knopf. 288 pages. $25.95. ISBN: 9780307264213
"The Lake Shore Limited is craftily plotted, too good for a reviewer to give much of it away. Also, as with her previous novels, Miller resists allowing her characters the resources of eloquence; nor does she--in Henry James's words--‘go behind' them to offer us deeper truths about their behavior." William H. Pritchard
New York Times
"This is a book that does not depend on big, noisy plot developments, topical issues or deliberately withheld secrets to create suspense. Rather, its power grows from Ms. Miller's intimate understanding of her characters (for once, the men are as keenly and sympathetically portrayed as the women) and from her Chekhovian understanding of missed connections, lost opportunities, and closely held memories that mutate slowly over time." Michiko Kakutani
San Francisco Chronicle
"Her signature gift is to lay out intricate, discomfiting truths in graceful, clear sentences that never fail to engross and comfort. ... Richly layered, these self-examinations drive The Lake Shore Limited to a subtle, piquant, satisfying closing." Joan Frank
"Miller is a remarkably graceful writer who sweeps you up in her flow of words, in her ability to make a character seem like someone we know. And there's a lovely house-of-mirrors effect in Miller's use of Billy's play as the book's story-within-a-story: We watch Billy and Rafe as they go through the process of creativity, wondering how close that might be to Miller's as she creates them." Moira Macdonald
"Miller's exquisite new novel, The Lake Shore Limited, is so sophisticated and thoughtful that it should either help redeem the term ‘women's literature' or free her from it once and for all. ... This is emotional terrain some people won't feel comfortable in, but it's gorgeously drawn and told with stark honesty." Ron Charles
NY Times Book Review
"The Lake Shore Limited is perhaps best appreciated as an extended character study. In places the prose drags, and there's too much filler detail, as if Miller weren't sure how to move the story forward without a proper plot. Still, the novel is worth reading for the ruthlessness of its revelations." Ligaya Mishan
"The prose is plodding and overly ponderous, and the plot peters out to reveal--not all that much. Indeed, Billy's play, described nearly scene by scene, is far tauter than the novel that swallows it." Olivia Barker
Miller's latest novel poses some compelling questions about relationships and the misguided assumptions and unreliable memories that underlie one's sense of self--and it offers some profound if unsettling answers. Critics varied in their assessments of Miller's prose, her use of the play as a story-within-a-story, and her plot, which boasts "no drama, no crisis, barely any action at all" (Washington Post). However, most agreed that Miller's complex, sympathetic characters are authentic and that their shifting viewpoints create "a haunting chamber-music piece with many different solos" (New York Times). Elegant and insightful, The Lake Shore Limited should perhaps be savored as a character study in the vein of Henry James--demanding but well worth the effort.
POTENTIAL SPOILER ALERT!
The Reading Guide below is supplied by the book's publisher, and plot points may be revealed. We recommend that read the book before reading the guide.
1. Have you read any of Sue Miller’s other books? If so, does The Lake Shore Limited share any themes?
2. What do we learn from the first sentence of this novel? Now that you know the character Leslie, what does it mean to you?
3. Who did you assume was the main character when you first started reading? Did you change your mind?
4. Do you consider this to be a 9/11 novel? Why?
5. On page 7, Leslie wonders, “But was [possibility] necessary? . . . Weren’t there people, everywhere, who lived without it? Who didn’t imagine anything other than what was?” Ultimately, which of the characters are open to possibility, and which aren’t?
6. Discuss the marriages in the novel. What do they have in common? In what ways are they different? Which seems healthiest to you?
7. On page 41, Leslie realizes that “she had been asking [Pierce] whether he would come with her into what she thought of as this new life—and that he was telling her no.” How does Leslie react to this? Why?
8. In the play, Gabriel says to Anita, “It’s what we all feel. We want. Then we want more. It’s the human condition” (page 44). Is this true for Leslie, Rafe, Billy, and Sam?
9. What do you think Miller is trying to say about the creation of art and its reflection of real life?
10. The notion of playing a role is a recurrent theme in the novel. Who is most true to his or her authentic self? Who has mastered his or her role? Whose changes most drastically?
11. Why is the Henry James reference in the play (page 45) so important? What was Billy trying to say?
12. When Rafe asks Billy if the play is based on her own life, she insists it isn’t autobiographical (page 77). Is she intentionally lying, or is there something else going on here?
13. Why does sleeping with Billy affect Rafe’s performance in the play?
14. Both Rafe and Sam see themselves in Gabriel. Which man do you think is more like him? Why?
15. What does Gus represent to Billy? To Leslie? What role does grief play in the novel?
16. Over the course of the novel, various characters note that Billy looks like a child. What does this signify?
17. Why do Sam and Leslie stop at just a kiss (page 188)? What do you think would have happened if they had had an affair?
18. What is the purpose of the scene between Sam and Jerry (pages 206–212)? How does it affect Sam?
19. Why is Billy so frosty when Sam brings his son to see the play (page 221)?
20. On page 232, Leslie thinks, “But that’s what the play was about. . . . At least in part. The wish to imagine what life could be, how it could change, if you were unencumbered.” What do you think the play was about? Which of the four main characters most wishes for an unencumbered life?
21. Reread the alternate endings Billy considered for the play (page 251). Why do you think she chose to end the play the way she did?
22. On page 267, Miller writes, “Now as Sam sits in his living room, holding the Christmas letter from Emma, thinking of Melanie Gruber, he realizes that he’s called her up in part because he feels the same way about Billy, about the accident of Billy’s arrival in his life—exactly that surprised.” Why does he feel this way? How does it change him?
23. Discuss the ending. Was it satisfying? What do you imagine happens next?