When the curtain goes up on Sue Miller's new novel, we find ourselves at the first night of a soon-to-be hit play. The unfolding drama concerns a man coming to terms with the death of his wife in a terrorist attack on a Chicago train. To the audience's surprise, far from being devastated by the news, he appears glad that this chapter of his life has been so conveniently erased.
As this is a Sue Miller novel, however, we can be sure that more tragedy awaits in the wings. This promising new production turns out to be the work of Billy Gertz, a young playwright whose own boyfriend, Gus, was killed in the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center. Like her on-stage alter-ego, she too had been planning to leave her partner before fate took a helping hand. Also in the theatre that night is Gus's older sister, Leslie, and a family friend, Sam - two characters who will take a hand in shaping Billy's romantic future.
While Leslie is shocked by what Billy seems to be saying about her feelings for her dead brother, Sam feels a jolt of recognition. Having cared for his first wife as she died of cancer, he recalls his own unspoken wish to have the business over with quickly.
Divorce, betrayal and desire have long been cherished themes of Miller's popular fiction, from her controversial debut The Good Mother through to her recent tales of adultery in The Senator's Wife. Less dependent on plot development, this muted ninth novel finds the author in experimental mode. Using extracts from Billy's back catalogue, Miller ponders at some length the nature of artistic endeavour and the ethics of purloining other people's lives in the cause of art. As light relief, Billy does manage a brief fling with one of the actors in the play, though it later emerges that his wife is suffering from Lou Gehrig's disease.
For any American novelist attempting to address 9/11, there's a danger of passing off the smoking towers as mere backdrop to lesser domestic dramas. But for Miller's New Englanders, many fast approaching 60, life has already inured them to horror and loss. This is particularly true for Sam, a man who has failed his own wife and son, and for whom scale has ceased to be an issue.
As he so bluntly puts it: "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." It's a comfort of sorts.