The Lake Shore Limited, The Senator's Wife – Sue Miller

Women give with their breasts in so many ways – some of these ways are involved with their exposure for the deliberate appreciation of males. As the latter gender move towards their terminal years, so that giving is even more appreciated and certainly not just accepted. In Tom’s case it was cherished. Neighbour Meri gave him her gift – and in doing so he gave her much in return. ‘If someone had asked her (Meri) about the nature of what happened between them, of course she would have had to acknowledge its eroticism, its sexuality. But it was more than that. It was a charge between them. Or a recharge she thought.’

Very much in decline, Tom received from Meri what most in his position could only dream about. I would have no idea how easy it would be to give such a gift – Meri didn’t seem to have too many problems with it. But Tom was able to give back – and now that is something worth staying on the planet for.

I like the tale Sue Miller tells of her days as a struggling single mother, before literary fame and (one assumes) some fortune came to her. It needs to be told against her upbringing with a father an ordained minister and both grandfathers also of the church – as were great-grandpas too. And there she was, working in a seedy bar – ‘…think high heels, mesh tights and the concentrated smell of nicotine.’ – being ogled at by leering men.

It is reported that many of her works are indeed semi-autobiographical. Miller’s formative years, as well as being of an ecclesiastical nature, were also severely academic. She went on to Harvard. But later still she also went through the marriage wringer, produced a child that she had to raise fettered by not having a partner. In doing so, she was simultaneously attempting to establish herself as a wordsmith. Thus she struggled, working base-rate jobs such as the afore-mentioned to support her son. Her eventually successful efforts to improve herself have shaped her and given her an ample dollop of life experience. As a reward, along came grants and at age 43 she struck gold when ‘The Good Mother’ was accepted for publication. It shot into the best seller ranks, Hollywood came calling and she was on her way. Since then her novels have been gonged many times and she is regarded as one of her country’s leading practitioners of domestic fiction – what the Brits would term the aga-saga. It is the richness of her prose I succumb to – the descriptions in detail of the minutiae of any dramatic setting. I have had two of her recent novels sitting on my shelves for a while and decided to tackle them one after the other. It didn’t take me long before the first and the most recent, ‘The Lake Shore Limited’ had me in its thrall as it took me to WASPish middle class America.

lake shore

At this tome’s core is the eponymous play. Around it Ms Miller builds a saga of falling in and out of love in several of its variations. It is cleverly constructed from the perspective of several souls connected with the stage production – an actor, the playwright, her boyfriend’s mother, this mother’s would be lover and so on. It’s post Twin Towers, but nonetheless very much in the shadow of that event. It is a deeply satisfying work, one that is sad to depart from on completion – a tribute to Sue M’s skill in unravelling the various entanglements of her characters as they come to terms with an unexpected, high profile loss.

Now back to Tom. Was he the most fortunate of men? Well, in one sense he managed to luck in throughout most of his adult life – as he continued to do so with the neighbour right at near life’s end – but at what cost? He had the ability, deep into a marriage, to still enrapture younger women, such as his daughter’s bestie – who ultimately caused his political downfall – he was the Senator in ‘The Senator’s Wife’ – but not him to change his philandering ways. But we have more questions. Who was this Alison Miller who was with him when his health finally crumbled? Why did his wife remain devoted, contriving an unconventional arrangement with him on top of her own affair with Paris? She continued to have satisfying intercourse, at regular intervals, with him throughout their long estrangement. Then, most poignantly, at the end – there was the question of what was ailing Meri when she gave him the gift of her breasts? The story of the Senator is related to us through the mouthpieces of both Meri and his long, not-so-suffering wife Delia. The time frame is from the seventies till near present day, but concentrating on the last decade of the previous century.

lake shore2

Of Miller’s two offerings and despite the attractions of the first reviewed, it is this second tale that had the most impact – an absorbing, unputdownable page-turner. Neither of the novels strayed too far from the author’s own Bostonian home – although she has had flirtations herself with northern California. Miller writes of her New England region with much affection – and similarly of the type of people who reside there. She has them down to a tee. Progressing through her seventies now, her own talent displays nary a sign of being in decline.


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