‘The Lake Shore Limited’ by Sue Miller

2010, 270p.

“The play’s the thing!” announced young Hamlet, and the play’s the thing in this book as well.  But it’s not Denmark, instead it’s Boston, but as with Shakespeare’s play-within-a-play, the theatre acts both as a focal point of the work, and as a teller of truths to writer, audience and actors alike.

The play at the heart of this novel is written by Billy, a young ambitious female playwright.  It is opening night, and she has invited Leslie, the older sister of her former partner Gus to the performance, and she and her husband bring with them Sam, a twice-married divorcee as a bit of diffident matchmaking.

Billy’s partner Gus had died in one of the planes that crashed into the World Trade Centre on September 11, and so Leslie was discomfited by Billy’s new play that focussed on a man whose wife was on a train- not a plane- that was bombed.  The marriage was unhappy, on the verge of breakdown, but their family and friends did not know this.  When news came of the bombing, he was caught between numbness, elation, relief….many emotions, but none of them clearcut.  Although Billy declared that the play was not autobiographical, Leslie found herself wondering about her brother’s partner, and whether she too, felt ambivalent. Billy’s relationship with the now-deceased Gus was, indeed, tenuous and there was far more autobiography in her play than she realized.

The story is told in alternating chapters that move between Leslie, Billy, Sam, and Rafe, the lead actor.  Sam and Rafe have had their sadnesses and ambivences about their own wives too: Sam’s first wife died of cancer and his second marriage fractured quickly, and Rafe’s wife has motor neurone disease.  So, as you can see, it is a play-within-a-play that sets off the emotional tripwires in all its characters.

I like Sue Miller, and I was rather surprised (and pleased) to see that, over about twenty years, I have read nearly all of her books although I’ve only reviewed one here on this blog.  I feel almost as if I have grown up with her, as her books have moved from young mothers with new lovers, share houses, neighbours, and now aging baby-boomers.  I’m not aware enough of American geography to be able to locate them exactly, but they’re east-coast, suburban, middle-class, educated settings and there is often snow, lighted windows, and deciduous trees. I’m sure that all her characters would vote Democrat.  She often has ‘pairs’ in her novels: contrasting characters and situations that are played off against each other.  They’re the sort of book that could easily be graced with a ‘Women’s Weekly Great Read’ sticker, with all that denotes and yet there’s a bit of an edge to them as well that makes them more than this.

But I didn’t enjoy this one quite as much.  I found myself becoming annoyed at the frequent backgrounding and reminiscences. Admittedly, perhaps as her baby-boomer characters age, there’s more back story to draw on, but I felt that it was overdrawn here.  She has always had a very good eye for detail, but there’s a narrow line between building up texture and burdening with minutiae. I’m not sure that perhaps it wasn’t crossed in this book.  So with regret, I have to admit that this particular Sue Miller didn’t quite do it for me.

My rating: 7.5/10

Read because: I do like reading Sue Miller’s books

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library

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