The Lake Shore Limited, By Sue Miller

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The Independent Culture

When the curtain rises on Sue Miller's absorbing new novel, we find ourselves at the opening night of a soon-to-be successful play. The unfolding drama shows a man coming to terms with the news that his wife has been killed in a terrorist attack on a Chicago train. The surprise is that he appears detached from the tragedy, insufficiently moved – almost glad, in fact that this chapter of his life has been so conveniently erased.

The Lake Shore Limited turns out to be the work of Billy Gertz, a young woman whose own boyfriend, Gus, died in the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center. In the audience are Gus's sister, Leslie, and Sam, a family friend. While Leslie is dismayed by what Billy seems to be saying about her feelings for her brother, Sam feels a jolt of recognition.

Having cared for his first wife as she died of cancer, he recalls his own unspoken desire to have the business over with quickly. In another layer of interconnectedness, the star of the show, middle-aged Rafe, is looking after a partner in the early stages of Lou Gehrig's disease (while sleeping with Billy between rehearsals).

Marriage, divorce, betrayal and death have long been cherished themes of Miller's hugely popular fiction, from her controversial debut The Good Mother through to her recent tales of Washington adultery in The Senator's Wife. But whereas in previous novels the tension is kept high, here the serious action has already happened offstage. In more experimental narrative mode – including extracts from Billy's play - Miller relates events in retrospect, knitting together the members of her cast in a needy web of allegiances, largely of a romantic nature.

A permanent air of tristesse permeates the novel as these spent New Englanders, wrapped up against the cold, realign in new relationships. The plot may be low-key, but Miller proves as adept as ever at maintaining a high emotional temperature. While Billy's theatrical productions provide Miller with an overly ample opportunity to elaborate on the nature of artistic endeavour, at other times her writing is unadorned to the point of plainness. Characters warm through their ravioli, walk the dog and brush their teeth. Indeed, one of the perennial pleasures of Miller's fiction is her voyeuristic impulse to strip bare every aspect of her characters' private lives.

For any American novelist attempting to incorporate 9/11, there is always the danger of passing off the smoking towers as a mere backdrop to more ordinary tragedy. But for Miller's fallen men and women, many fast approaching 60, life has already inured them to horror and loss. Scale, it appears, has ceased to matter. As Sam, who lives with the knowledge that he botched his relationship with wife and sons, comes to recognise: "these people that you love and care about, that you make your life out of – and then they leave, they change, they die. They have no need of you in the end." This stark realism offers a comfort of sorts.