The Lake Shore Limited

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Overview

Four unforgettable characters beckon you into this spellbinding new novel from Sue Miller, the author of 2008’s heralded best seller The Senator’s Wife. First among them is Wilhelmina—Billy—Gertz, small as a child, fiercely independent, powerfully committed to her work as a playwright. The story itself centers on The Lake Shore Limited—a play Billy has written about an imagined terrorist bombing of that train as it pulls into Union Station in Chicago, and about a man waiting to hear the fate of his estranged ...
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Overview

Four unforgettable characters beckon you into this spellbinding new novel from Sue Miller, the author of 2008’s heralded best seller The Senator’s Wife. First among them is Wilhelmina—Billy—Gertz, small as a child, fiercely independent, powerfully committed to her work as a playwright. The story itself centers on The Lake Shore Limited—a play Billy has written about an imagined terrorist bombing of that train as it pulls into Union Station in Chicago, and about a man waiting to hear the fate of his estranged wife, who is traveling on it. Billy had waited in just such a way on 9/11 to hear whether her lover, Gus, was on one of the planes used in the attack.

The novel moves from the snow-filled woods of Vermont to the rainy brick sidewalks of Boston as the lives of the other characters intersect and interweave with Billy’s: Leslie, Gus’s sister, still driven by grief years after her brother’s death; Rafe, the actor who rises to greatness in a performance inspired by a night of incandescent lovemaking; and Sam, a man irresistibly drawn to Billy after he sees the play that so clearly displays the terrible conflicts and ambivalence of her situation.

How Billy has come to create the play out of these emotions, how it is then created anew on the stage, how the performance itself touches and changes the other characters’ lives—these form the thread that binds them all together and drives the novel compulsively forward.

A powerful love story; a mesmerizing tale of entanglements, connections, and inconsolable losses; a marvelous reflection on the meaning of grace and the uses of sorrow, in life and in art: The Lake Shore Limited is Sue Miller at her dazzling best.

From the Hardcover edition.

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  • The Lake Shore Limited
    The Lake Shore Limited  

Editorial Reviews

Library Journal
Miller (The Senator's Wife) opens doors to the private lives of four people grappling with loss in her latest novel. Leslie, her husband, Pierce, and her close friend Sam attend a play written by Billy, the former lover of Leslie's brother, Gus, who was killed on 9/11. The play, The Lake Shore Limited, seems based on the horror of that fateful day and the complicated feelings it unearthed in those waiting to hear if their loved ones were dead or alive—it jolts Leslie, Billy, Sam, and Rafe, the actor who plays the main character in the play, into a difficult inner struggle that could lead to healing and closure. VERDICT Expertly written, this novel plumbs the dark depths of grief and guilt but emerges into the light of self-forgiveness and freedom. Recommended.—Jyna Scheeren, NYPL
Ron Charles
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. Several times in these pages someone refers to the relentless psychological analysis found in Henry James's novels…In fact, The Lake Shore Limited may be the closest thing we'll get to a James response to 9/11: no drama, no crisis, barely any action at all—just a deeply affecting examination of the thoughts and feelings of four people still moving in the shadow of that tragedy.
—The Washington Post
Ligaya Mishan
The Lake Shore Limited is perhaps best appreciated as an extended character study…worth reading for the ruthlessness of its revelations.
—The New York Times Book Review
Michiko Kakutani
By writing alternating sections of the novel from different characters' points of view…Ms. Miller not only conveys the subjectivity of all experience but also succeeds in creating a haunting chamber-music piece with many different solos. The result is her most nuanced and unsentimental novel to date. 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…and from her Chekhovian understanding of missed connections, lost opportunities, and closely held memories that mutate slowly over time.
—The New York Times
Publishers Weekly
Four people are bound together by the 9/11 death of a man in Miller's insightful latest. Leslie, older sister and stand-in mother to the late Gus, clings to the notion that Gus had found true love with his girlfriend, Billy, before he was killed. But the truth is more complicated: Billy, a playwright, has written a new play that explores the agonizing hours when a family gathers, not knowing the fate of their mother and wife who was aboard a train that has been bombed. The ambivalent reaction of the woman's husband has shades of Billy and Gus's relationship, particularly the limbo she's been in since he died. Rafe, the actor playing the ambivalent husband, processes his own grief and guilt about his terminally ill wife as he steps more and more into his character. Finally, there's Sam, an old friend Leslie now hopes to set up with Billy. While the plot doesn't have the suspense and zip of The Senator's Wife, Miller's take on post-9/11 America is fascinating and perfectly balanced with her writerly meditations on the destructiveness of trauma and loss, and the creation and experience of art. (Apr.)
Kirkus Reviews
An ambitious exploration of the interaction between choice and random chance in human relationships, from Miller (The Senator's Wife, 2008, etc.)The book centers on four characters' reactions to the play that one of them has scripted about the aftermath of a terrorist attack. Leslie attends the play of the title with her doctor husband and their architect friend Sam, with whom she once shared vague romantic longings. Playwright Billy was Leslie's younger brother's live-in girlfriend when he died six years earlier on one of the 9/11 planes. Still grieving for Gus, Leslie assumes Billy feels the same sense of loss and is disturbed by Billy's play, which describes the ambivalence of the survivor. The play's hero is a man who learns that a bomb has gone off on the train on which his wife was traveling. Horrified to feel relief that his wife's death would free him to marry his lover, he sends the lover away, and the play ends with his ambiguous greeting to his wife when she returns. As Leslie struggles to understand what the play means about Billy and Gus's relationship, the actor Rafe, who is playing the lead, also finds the play hitting close to home. His wife is dying of ALS, and he is committed to her care. After he sleeps with Billy one night, he brings the loss and guilt he feels about his wife to his performance, the brilliance of which resuscitates his flagging career. Billy has written the play to clear the air. She had decided to leave Gus before he died, but Leslie sucked her into the role of grieving lover. Now Leslie throws Billy together with Sam. He is immediately smitten, but Billy resists. An architect whose first wife died of breast cancer and whose second marriage ended indivorce, Sam allows chance to take its course. Miller raises tantalizing questions about the ethics of love, but the actual drama involving her decent, troubled characters never rises above a simmer. First printing of 200,000
From the Publisher
“Ms. Miller not only conveys the subjectivity of all experience but also succeeds in creating a haunting chamber-music piece with many different solos. . . . Its power grows from Ms. Miller’s intimate understanding of her characters . . . and from her Chekhovian understanding of missed connections, lost opportunities, and closely held memories that mutate slowly over time. . . . Ms. Miller gives us a knowing meditation upon the acts of alchemy and theft that constitute an artist’s work: a meditation that sheds light on her own craft, so meticulously showcased in this novel.”
—Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times
 
“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. . . . Gorgeously drawn and told with stark honesty. . . . Intellectual and emotional . . . profound and unsettling. . . . [A] miracle.”
—Ron Charles, The Washington Post
 
“Quintessential Miller, touching on the themes that have animated her fiction for the past quarter-century: the potency of sex; the failure of men and women to understand each other; the hunger for a different life.”
—Ligaya Mishan, The New York Times Book Review
 
“Miller has written gripping novels that shrewdly tap the domestic zeitgeist. Lake Shore, set between snowy Vermont and brick-lined Boston, continues the trend, exploring the fragility of love—and life—in the post-9/11 era. . . . [A] play-within-the-novel adds a layer of complexity to Miller’s latest tale, another graceful, poignant romance that resonates with the times.”
—Joanna Powell, People
 
“With the surety of a master, Miller reveals the intersection of love and fate.”
Good Housekeeping
 
“An ensemble novel about love, loss, and the discontents of middle age.”
Elle (Fiction pick of the month, The Elle’s Lettres Readers Prize)
 
“An ambitious exploration of the interaction between choice and random chance in human relationships. . . . Miller raises tantalizing questions about the ethics of love.”
Kirkus Reviews
 
“Miller’s take on post-9/11 America is fascinating and perfectly balanced with her writerly meditations on the destructiveness of trauma and loss, and the creation and experience of art.”
Publishers Weekly
 
“Expertly written, this novel plumbs the dark depths of grief and guilt but emerges into the light of self-forgiveness and freedom. Recommended.”
Jyna Scheeren, Library Journal
 
“As the narrative among four different perspectives, Miller ever so slowly builds to a deeply affecting series of emotional revelations. Among the many heady themes Miller tackles—the joys and burdens of making art, the wish for a different, unencumbered life—is the relationships between men and women that elicit her most piercing insights and elegant turns of phrase. . . . An eloquent, layered meditation on the complexities of the human heart.”
—Joanne Wilkinson, Booklist
The Barnes & Noble Review

It's a cold and rainy night when the main characters of The Lake Shore Limited, the ninth novel by Sue Miller, converge on a small theater in Boston. Leslie and her husband, Pierce, have driven down from their cozy home in rural Vermont to see the newest play written by Wilhelmina (Billy) Getz. Sam, a Bostonian friend of the couple, is meeting them for the show, and for dinner after.

Though the evening is ostensibly a way for the three friends to reconnect, Leslie has secretly set another plan in motion. Billy, the playwright, was once engaged to Leslie's brother, Gus, who died on an airplane in the September 11 attacks in New York. Now, six years after that tragedy, Leslie has decided to set Billy up on a blind date with her pal, Sam. Not all that odd, really, until you learn Leslie was, not so long ago, half in love with Sam.

And although that was all in the past now, and probably for Sam nothing memorable -- a vague feeling of sweetness and perhaps melancholy to their friendship -- Leslie had a sense of renunciation in introducing Sam to Billy, a sense of giving up a thing of private value.

Billy, meanwhile, is herself about to publicly reveal something so private and disturbing, it has overshadowed her life in the six years since Gus's death. Her play, also called The Lake Shore Limited, is named for an Amtrak train that travels daily between Chicago and New York City. In Act One, Billy blows it up with a terrorist's bomb. But her protagonist, whose wife is on the doomed train, can't ignore the fact that her death, while tragic, would also come as welcome news.

It's quite the set-up -- solidly familiar ground for Miller. Her ability to sketch a character so you just know that you know him, until she strips him bare and you realize you didn't know him (and by extension, yourself) at all, has won her a wide following. It's here, all of it, the telling detail, the elegant prose, the shocks and setbacks and myriad betrayals that go into the making of a life.

For all the lust and longing and dire drama that drive The Lake Shore Limited, the story itself is oddly muted. Maybe it’s the fifteen or so pages at the start in which Miller forces us to listen as Leslie watches the play and explains it to us in detail, blow by blow, in real time. Has any description of a novel or dream or painting or book ever come close to replicating the experience? And while Billy turns out to be a terrific character, young and mixed-up and angry, she is too often shoved to the sidelines as Miller switches her focus to other, less engaging characters. Their stories get told in flashbacks, which themselves often contain flashbacks.

But, while you fight it for a while, eventually you give in. The stories telescope around you, past informing present, present leading back to the past until, in Miller's skilled hands, even the smallest movement forward feels like an epiphany.

--Veronique de Turenne

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780307264213
  • Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 4/6/2010
  • Pages: 288
  • Product dimensions: 6.60 (w) x 9.30 (h) x 1.30 (d)

Meet the Author

Sue Miller is the best-selling author of the novels The Senator’s Wife, Lost in the Forest, The World Below, While I Was Gone, The Distinguished Guest, For Love, Family Pictures, and The Good Mother; the story collection Inventing the Abbotts; and the memoir The Story of My Father. She lives in Boston, Massachusetts.

From the Hardcover edition.

Biography

Since her iconic first novel, The Good Mother in 1986, Sue Miller has distinguished herself as one of our most elegant and widely celebrated chroniclers of family life, with a singular gift for laying bare the interior lives of her characters.

While not strictly speaking autobiographical, Miller's fiction is, nonetheless, shaped by her experiences. Born into an academic and ecclesiastical family, she grew up in Chicago's Hyde Park and went to college at Harvard. She was married at 20 and held down a series of odd jobs until her son Ben was born in 1968. She separated from her first husband in 1971, subsequently divorced, and for 13 years was a single parent in Cambridge, Massachusetts, working in day care, taking in roomers, and writing whenever she could.

In these early years, Miller's productivity was directly proportional to her ability to win grants and fellowships. An endowment in 1979 allowed her to enroll in the Creative Writing Program at Boston University. A few of her stories were accepted for publication, and she began teaching in the Boston area. Two additional grants in the 1980s enabled her to concentrate on writing fulltime. Published in 1986, her first novel became an international bestseller.

Since then, success has followed success. Two of Miller's books (The Good Mother and Inventing the Abbots) have been made into feature films; her 1990 novel Family Pictures was nominated for a National Book Critics Circle Award; Oprah Winfrey selected While I Was Gone for her popular Book Club; and in 2004, a first foray into nonfiction -- the poignant, intensely personal memoir The Story of My Father -- was widely praised for its narrative eloquence and character dramatization.

Miller is a distinguished practitioner of "domestic fiction," a time-honored genre stretching back to Jane Austen, Henry James, and Leo Tolstoy and honed to perfection by such modern literary luminaries as John Updike, Flannery O'Connor, and Richard Ford. A careful observer of quotidian detail, she stretches her novels across the canvas of home and hearth, creating extraordinary stories out of the quiet intimacies of marriage, family, and friendship. In an article written for the New York Times "Writers on Writing" series, she explains: "For me everyday life in the hands of a fine writer seems ... charged with meaning. When I write, I want to bring a sense of that charge, that meaning, to what may fairly be called the domestic."

Good To Know

Here are some fascinating outtakes from our interview with Sue Miller:
  • "I come from a long line of clergy. My father was an ordained minister in the Presbyterian church, though as I grew up, he was primarily an academic at several seminaries -- the University of Chicago, and then Princeton. Both my grandfathers were also ministers, and their fathers too. It goes back farther than that in a more sporadic way."

  • "I spent a year working as a cocktail waitress in a seedy bar just outside New Haven, Connecticut. Think high heels, mesh tights, and the concentrated smell of nicotine. Think of the possible connections of this fact to the first fact, above."

  • "I like northern California, where we've had a second home we're selling -- it's just too far away from Boston. I've had a garden there that has been a delight to create, as the plants are so different from those in New England, which is where I've done most of my gardening. I had to read up on them. I studied Italian gardens too -- the weather is very Mediterranean. I like weeding -- it's almost a form of meditation."

  • "I like little children. I loved working in daycare and talking to kids, learning how they form their ideas about the world's workings -- always intriguing, often funny. I try to have little children in my life, always."

  • "I want to make time to take piano lessons again. I did it for a while as an adult and enjoyed it.

  • "I like to cook and to have people over. I love talking with people over good food and wine. Conversation -- it's one of life's deepest pleasures."
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      1. Hometown:
        Boston, Massachusetts
      1. Date of Birth:
        November 29, 1943
      2. Place of Birth:
        Chicago, Illinois
      1. Education:
        B.A., Radcliffe College, 1964; M.A.T., Wesleyan U., 1965; Ed.M., Harvard U., 1975; M.A. Boston U., 1980

    Read an Excerpt

    The Lake Shore Limited


    By Sue Miller

    Random House Large Print

    Copyright © 2010 Sue Miller
    All right reserved.

    ISBN: 9780739377659

    Because it was still afternoon, because she was in a strange room, because she was napping rather than sleeping (“I’ll just lie down for a bit and see what happens,” she’d told Pierce)—because of all this, she was aware of herself as she dreamed, at some level conscious of working to subvert the dream she was having, to make it come out another way, different from the way it seemed to be headed.

    She was trying to get to Gus, that was the idea. Somehow she knew that he was far away and by himself, that he was in trouble. It was one of those dreams of turning wrong corners, of ending up in nightmare neighborhoods or in twisting empty corridors, of searching in vain. A dream of haste, too. Yes, now she understood that she was late, terribly late. She was trying to run, but her legs were thick and heavy, hard to move.

    Oh, this is classic, she thought, floating over the whole mess. This is so predictable.

    Let’s not, she thought.

    And it worked. For here was Gus, suddenly, conjured by her, shoved into the dream where he wasn’t yet supposed to be—she still had miles to go. He looked younger than he’d been when last she’d seen him in life. He was smiling fondly at her.

    “I’m sorry to be late,” she said. This came out oddly because, she realized abruptly, she was weeping.

    “Oh, you’re always late,” he said, carelessly, affectionately; and she woke up.

    It simply wasn’t true, what he’d said—she was never late—and this accusation, even so lightly made, this was the part of the dream that left her most disconcerted. She lay in the wide bed, the sensa- tion of weeping still with her—in her throat, her chest—and looked around the room. The hotel room.

    They were in Boston, in an expensive hotel overlooking the Public Garden. She had booked it. She had even specified the floor—high up enough to be looking across into the trees. It must have been four-thirty or later, she thought. It was dusky outside and the room was deep in shadows. She could hear voices in the hall, the women who turned down the beds, most likely. They were lingering, chatting out there. It was a language she couldn’t understand, full of guttural sounds. Portuguese maybe. A jewel-bright stripe of light glowed at the bottom of the door. One of them laughed.

    She was alone in the room. Pierce had gone to the Museum of Fine Arts, to a show she had read about in the paper and suggested to him—she wanted him to have something to do in the city that he enjoyed, too. It was a show of Japanese prints called the Floating World, prints of the life of the theater and the world of courtesans from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Apparently it included some never-before-displayed erotica, described as fantastic in its inventiveness. It was on account of this that she’d recommended it to Pierce. Just his cup of tea, she’d said to him.

    “You’re sure you don’t want to go?” he’d asked as he was about to leave. “You’re not drawn by the prospect of those immense members being waved about?” He swung his arm wide. “Poked here and there?”

    “I get my fill of immense members at home. I don’t need to go to the MFA for that.”

    He had smiled, surprised at her, and then taken a formal bow before he exited, wearing his old tweed overcoat. She had told him recently that he looked like a panhandler in it—and he did, even when he was wearing the fancy leather gloves she’d given him for his birthday, as he had been today.

    He didn’t care, he’d said. “And we could always use the dough.”

    He would be back soon, she supposed. She should get up and try to make herself look more presentable.

    But she didn’t right away. She lay with her eyes closed, thinking of the version of Gus she had invented in the dream. Why do we alter them in the way we do? Why make him so young, so happy?

    Erasing it, she supposed. The way he’d died. The awfulness of it. Its solitariness, as she thought of it, though he’d hardly been alone.





    Gus was her brother, younger by fourteen years. He would have been forty-five now if he’d lived. He’d died six years earlier. For the most part she’d stopped thinking, or even dreaming, about the moment of his death, the exact way it happened, which she was grateful for. But she still dreamed of him, and she was grateful for this, too. In this afternoon’s dream he seemed to have been in his early twenties—handsome, smiling, teasing her. That was his age at the point in their lives when they’d been closest. Before then she hadn’t paid much attention to him, he was so much younger—four years old when she went off to college, eleven when she married.

    But a few years after that, when Gus was still in high school and she and Pierce were first living in New Hampshire, their parents divorced and things changed. Their father moved to California and disappeared, though for a few years he still called her occasionally late at night—midevening his time—loaded, weepy, full of useless and temporarily felt love. The first few times he did this she had stayed on the phone with him as long as he wanted to talk. She had imagined finding some way back to the affection that had existed between them when she was a girl.

    But nothing happened as a result of the calls, nothing changed. They began and ended the same way each time, as if he had no memory of the one before. And probably he didn’t. Probably he had some vague notion when he woke the next day that he’d talked to someone he knew. Maybe he even remembered it was Leslie. But he clearly remembered nothing specific—not the promises to visit, not the pleas for forgiveness. In the end she started turning off the phone when she and Pierce went to bed.

    Their mother moved into a one-bedroom apartment after the divorce, and Gus slept on a daybed in the living room. When he went away to college, she gave the bed to the Salvation Army and bought a real couch—she was tired of not having what she called “a decent place to entertain”—and that became Gus’s bed when he was home. She was dating by then, and often didn’t come back to the apartment at night at all, so Gus would wake alone in the morning, fix his own breakfast, and start calling his old high school friends for company.

    Pretty quickly he stopped going home on school vacations and began to come instead to stay with her, to stay in the house just across the river into Vermont that she and Pierce had bought a few years after he got the job at Dartmouth-Hitchcock. They gave a room over to him, and he slowly began to accumulate stuff in it—books, sports equipment, records and tapes and posters. After college, he’d gone to work in Boston, but he still came home regularly—home to Pierce and Leslie’s house.

    It was over these years that Leslie came to know him, to love him as a person, not just as the cute little brother. She understood that some of this had to do with her inability to get pregnant, for those were also the years when she and Pierce were trying, and failing, to have children. She was, she supposed, depressed most of that time. At any rate, she felt she was learning how deeply life can disappoint you, how all that’s good can become bad—for she and Pierce had turned away from each other then, and why not, when the most joyous, intimate connection between them had become enforced, more or less a topic for public discussion with doctors, with nurses—a matter simply of successful or unsuccessful function.

    Unsuccessful, as it turned out.

    And here came Gus, so sunny, so full of his boyish eagerness for life, so assured that all would always be well for him, that luck would follow him everywhere. He had a friend from college, Peter, who was also working in Boston, and he sometimes came up with Gus on weekends, or for holidays. “The fun boys,” they called themselves. And they were fun. The smallest things delighted them. Her maternal fussiness, which Gus had once stopped by imitating a hen’s cluck?ing back at her. The response of an orderly, careful friend when they called to ask him to join them at a bar: “You mean . . . now?” When one or both of them were visiting, Leslie would stay up late playing Yahtzee or Monopoly, watching Johnny Carson, drinking, laughing.

    Lying in the gray fading light of the hotel room now, she was remembering going for a walk with Gus in a snowstorm around midnight one night over a Christmas holiday. They had been talking in the living room and seen the flakes suddenly thicken dramatically in the lighted air outside the windows. “Let’s go,” he said, and without hesitation she pulled on her boots, her parka, her mittens, and stepped outside with him. She could feel it again now, she could call it up so clearly, the sense she had then of being enclosed in a private world with her brother—the flakes a kind of particulate blur, the ground beneath them turning quickly white, the rest of the world silenced and remote. I am so happy, she had thought. And part of that was the dearness to her of Gus, and the sense of how precious she was to him. When she had come in later and gone upstairs to her bedroom—her and Pierce’s bedroom—it felt musty, closed in, the noise of Pierce’s slow breathing in sleep somehow oppressive.

    All of this, she saw now—and actually knew even then—borne of loss. Made possible by their parents’ moving off separately into their lives, by Pierce’s retreat from her during these years, by her own feelings of failure and the resultant wish to live once again with a sense of possibility. Or near a sense of possibility, at any rate. Near Gus.

    “Possibility.” She whispered the word aloud into the twilit air of the hotel room. And smiled, looking up at the shadowed ceiling, at the steady pass of headlights across it. “Possibility.” What a funny, crotchety-sounding word for something so humanly necessary.

    But was it necessary? She turned on her side in bed. Weren’t there people, everywhere, who lived without it? Who didn’t imagine anything other than what was?

    She thought not. She thought everyone needed it—some sense that things would be better, might be better, soon. Or one day. She thought of immigrants, the way they worked two or three jobs to make something different possible for their children. It seemed one always wanted better for one’s children. That was surely one version of it—possibility. Perhaps one wanted better for oneself, too. Perhaps even for one’s religious group: the world converted to Christianity. The caliphate restored, spread. One hundred virgins waiting for you.

    She sat up. Her mouth tasted sour, fuzzy. She fumbled for the switch to the lamp on the bedside table. When it came on, the ?win?dow snapped to black, and here it was, the lushly carpeted room—the heavy, striped curtains at the window, the solid, dark, expensive-yet-undistinguished furniture, furniture such as no one would ever have in a real home.

    She got up and went into the vast marbled bathroom. She brushed her teeth. Afterward she took a long look at herself in the mirror over the double sink, and then at her image reflected, multiplied smaller and smaller, in the full-length mirror hung on the opened bathroom door behind her. She turned this way and that.

    The image she was used to, the one that faced her over the sink and the countertop, seemed much as it had for years. Different in some ways, of course—her hair was almost all white now, and she was heavier, certainly—yet still recognizably herself. But in the unfamiliar angles, the reversed versions she could see reflected again and again in the doorway mirror, she recognized what she didn’t usually have to confront—that she was getting old. Her face was set and sagging. The flesh of her neck and arms looked tired, crepey. Her hips were shapeless. Worst was that she was increasingly looking like her mother—her mouth drawn down sourly into an inverted U, the flesh at her jowls pouched. This bothered her more than anything.

    She thought of her mother, of taking care of her in her old age. When she’d gone to visit her, to take her for a walk or a drive or out to lunch, her mother would have dressed herself carefully, she would be wearing makeup, her eyes done heavily and with an unsteady hand that made her look, Leslie always thought, like the David Levine cartoon of the elderly Colette.

    Clearly the point of all that effort was to look attractive, and, most of all, to look attractive for Leslie. She wanted to be pleasing to her daughter. She imagined that they’d reconciled, she assumed that Leslie’s thoughtful caring for her was a sign of that.

    She was wrong. Leslie held every small kindness she performed for her mother against her. Every single generous act was a kind of dagger. A shiv, Leslie thought.

    How mean she was, really! She didn’t have the courage to act on it, but she was. She didn’t like it in herself.

    Now she went to the closet by the door to the hall and got her coat. She had to search the room’s surfaces for the plastic key card. It was on the bureau, under her purse. She would buy some flowers. A big bouquet for the room, to make it feel more theirs. Pierce would like that—she could picture his surprised face, opening in delight. And then it occurred to her that she should get something smaller, too, something she could easily take with her tonight—perhaps rosebuds, she thought. Rosebuds for Billy, for after the play.


    From the Hardcover edition.

    Continues...

    Excerpted from The Lake Shore Limited by Sue Miller Copyright © 2010 by Sue Miller. Excerpted by permission.
    All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
    Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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    Interviews & Essays

    Q+A with Sue Miller, author of THE LAKE SHORE LIMITED

    Q: The Lake Shore Limited takes its title from the famous train, but it is also the title of a play embedded within this novel-a play about a terrorist bombing of that train as it pulls into Union Station in Chicago, and a man waiting to hear whether his estranged wife is among the survivors. Billy Gertz, the woman who's written the play, has waited in just such a way on 9/11 to hear whether her lover, Gus, was on one of the planes used in that attack. Was there one event in particular that sparked the idea for The Lake Shore Limited?
    A: Yes. The spark came from a friend who had a relationship that would have ended sooner than it did had not her lover's brother died on 9/11. While this situation is not like the one I created for Billy, my fictional playwright, the situation started me thinking about the far reach of such an event; and the variety of responses that play out around it, even at some distance. And the way in which the responses may be based in feelings that might be not the expected one-ie, the way in which sometimes we're called on to enact something we don't feel, and the discomfort and sense of alienation from ourselves that comes from that.

    Q: Much of the book centers around the characters' reactions to Billy's play, "The Lake Shore Limited". How and why did you structure the book as, in essence, a play within a play?
    A: As I began to include some of the lines from the play and create scenes in rehearsal, it began to seem more important to me. It began to seem central to the book, actually. I began to see the book as at least in part a kind of speculation on how the experience of art can be transforming in life-for those who create it, as Billy and also Rafe, the actor, do; and for those who take it in and ponder it and ask about its connections to their own lives. And then, I suppose, I just got interested in the play, too-in writing it, at least the part you read in the book.

    Q: Billy Gertz is a playwright. You, Sue Miller, are a fiction writer. There is seemingly much overlap between these two professions. At one point, Billy is having an argument with her lover, Gus. Gus is upset that Billy used a private moment between the two of them in one of her plays. Billy says, "I use me, Gus . . . . I use me up. I need all of me, and if you're with me, that means I use you, too. I use everything. How could I not? And what I don't use, I don't use because it doesn't work. Not because it's sacred . . . . Nothing is sacred. That's just the way it is." Is this a conversation taken from your own life?
    A: I had originally thought of making Billy a director, a director who would be working on a play like The Lake Shore Limited. But then I began to think that I wanted the connection between what she was working on and her own experience with Gus to be more than coincidence, or accident, so I made her the playwright. And while I've never had exactly the conversation Billy has with Gus, I've often thought about what the limits are for writers in terms of what they use of their own lives, and others'. There are obviously great differences in the way writers work with the material they come by through living in families, having lovers and spouses, children, friends-even pets. I think I probably fall about in the middle in terms of making use of such material-not as close to the bone as some, not as distanced as others seem, anyway. In the end, though, we all call up what we know. Perhaps the greater difference then is in the degree of transformation of the material. And perhaps part of the reason I've never had the discussion Billy has with Gus with anyone in my own life is that I've transformed what I've used. The transformation is the point.

    Q: Have you always been a fan of the theatre? Could you see yourself writing a play one day?
    A: I've always been interested in seeing and reading plays, though occasionally I've felt the way the character Pierce, in the book, does-that they're too damned THEATRICAL. But the form interests me, as dialogue in my books has always interested me, and I could-can-imagine writing a play.

    Q: The viewpoint in The Lake Shore Limited flips amongst four characters, two male (Rafe and Sam) and two female (Leslie and Billy) all of whom are at various ages and stages of their life. Why did you choose to cast the book in this way?
    A: I wanted the book to look at the way this play strikes a variety of people. I had Billy nearly from the start of thinking about the book, and Leslie came next, because I knew I wanted two versions, two understandings, of what the real story was about Billy and Gus, with the play mediating between them. But I wanted to broaden the impact of the play too-to have it speak not just to the people directly involved, but to others, with other stories. Rafe and his life came next, more or less in a rush of notemaking and writing. Sam's was last, and most complicated to develop-though I knew from the start about his connection with Leslie.

    Q: You so eloquently write about the interior lives of people who are trying to understand their feelings, their relationships, themselves. How do you create such three dimensional characters, each with their own vivid and complicated pasts?
    A: Now THIS is the kind of question I like, wrapped neatly in a compliment. And I think I've started an answer with my response to the last question. But let me also say that this is one of the most pleasurable aspects of writing for me-the construction of lives and histories. The process of imagining them so deeply as to feel I actually know these other people, these other stories. A way of escaping myself, I suppose.

    Q: How do you research the specifics of what you write about? For instance, how did you know the specifics of producing a play?
    A:With each book I do, there is usually at least a little research. Sometimes I can get there by reading, and I did do a lot of reading about 9/11 for this book, actually, and the experiences of people who lost family on that day as well as the history of how it happened, the timeline of the planes, the story of the telephone calls-even the book The Commission. A lot of that didn't make it into the book, but that wasn't the point. The point was to feel that I could begin to understand it.

    As for the play, I sat in on the production of a play at the Aurora Theater in Berkeley in the spring of 2008, watching and making notes from the early stage of talk around a table about what the actors thought was intended, to the choreographing of a fight scene, to the final production. It was fascinating and not just helpful-necessary.

    Q: You teach English at Smith College. What is the best advice you give to aspiring writers?
    A: Read. Q: Tell us a little about your writing process-how you write, when etc?
    A: I make a lot of notes before I write. I want to know what I'm doing. Where I'm going. I want to feel that I'm working on a whole thing, the idea for which I have clear in my mind-the way perhaps an architect would know what he wanted to do without knowing every detail of it from the start; or a composer might know what he wanted a piece of music to do, the way he wanted it to move, without knowing all the themes in it.

    I write in longhand for the first draft, typing it in when I feel ready to work on revision. Sometime that's a small piece-a chapter-sometimes a longer chunk of the book. I type it in, pull it out and write all over it again in longhand, type it in again, pull it out, etc. etc.

    I try to write in the morning, before I get enmeshed in the demands of daily life-though those are all easier now that I don't have responsibility for a child. Towards the end of a book, I write longer days.

    Q: What's next for you?
    A: I've signed a contract with Knopf for a new novel I've described to them, so I'll be working on that for a few years. I'd like to try, anyway, to write Billy's play-"The Lake Shore Limited". And I have a two-year-old granddaughter I'd like to spend as much time with as I can.

    Read More Show Less

    Reading Group 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 8, 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 50, 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 53). 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 54) 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 91). 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 224)? 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 247–254)? How does it affect Sam?

    19. Why is Billy so frosty when Sam brings his son to see the play (page 265)?

    20. On page 278, 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 300). Why do you think she chose to end the play the way she did?

    22. On page 319, 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?

    (For a complete list of available reading group guides, and to sign up for the Reading Group Center enewsletter, visit www.readinggroupcenter.com)

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    Customer Reviews

    Average Rating 3.5
    ( 60 )
    Rating Distribution

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    (14)

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    See All Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 60 Customer Reviews
    • Posted March 12, 2010

      more from this reviewer

      The play within the novel is not a new idea, but brilliantly used by Sue Miller

      Author Wilhelmina "Billy" Gertz writes a play about an anxious family learning of the terrorist bombing of The Lake Shore Limited as the train enters Union Station in Chicago as their mother-wife is on board. Billy knows she is the model for the estranged husband in her play as she waited for news whether her lover Gus died on one of the 9/11 plane crashes.

      Gus's sister Leslie believes her late younger brother found the love of his life in Billy. Still Leslie tries to set up Billy with her friend Sam as she assumes the playwright is grieving her loss and the Lake Shore Limited was her catharsis. Meanwhile Rafe who has the role of the aloof husband in the play feels remorse and survivir guilt as his wife is dying,

      The play within the novel is not a new idea, but brilliantly used by Sue Miller to bring together a post 9/11 quarter either grieving or suffering from guilt as each has personal issues. The story line rotates perspective so that the audience obtains a deep look at grief and healing as only love can bring to the soul. The Lake Shore Limited is a terrific character driven tale as readers will relish Sue Miller's profound look at surviving tragedy by putting a face to those 3000 plus who died on 9/11.

      Harriet Klausner

      9 out of 9 people found this review helpful.

      Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
    • Posted June 27, 2010

      Excellent Technique

      The Lake Shore Limited is a train bound for Chicago that becomes the victim of a fictional terrorist bombing as it pulls into Union Station. This incident becomes a pivotal point for a play with the same title describing a husband's conflicted response when he learns his estranged wife was on board this train. Captivatingly, Miller uses a brilliant, but technically difficult technique, of interfacing the play with her characters and the readers as her audience. She unfolds the entire play, which provides us with the insight we need for the varying perceptions of her four main characters.

      The center character is the playwright, Billy Gertz, who lost her much younger boyfriend, Gus in one of the tragic 9 /11 flights. Gus was flying to Los Angeles for his father's funeral to meet up with his devoted sister, Leslie. Leslie and her husband, Pierce, a pediatric oncologist, have invited Sam, a widower to meet them to see the play. The main character in the play is "Gabriel" played by Rafe, a 45 year old actor who has never really made it. This role serves him well and Billy uses him to embellish her play to its dramatic climax.

      The four characters: Leslie, Billy, Rafe and Sam are the narrators who stop to reflect as they take walks, eat meals, have sex. Their experiences revolve around loss or forthcoming bereavement. Sam, a rather successful architect, lost his wife and even though, he appeared to be the super Mr. Mom when his wife was dying, feels like a failure. Leslie, who almost had a fling with Sam, is caught up in her desires and reliance on the safe thing to do. Rafe, whose wife is dying from Lou Gehrig's disease provides the most spot-on portrayal of someone whose guilt saturates him. Rafe's trip to his mother-in-law's home to tell of her daughter's disease and impending death is one of the most poignant scenes. The main action revolves around Billy, for whom I had the least sympathy. Her anguish over Gus' death was not pure grief and Miller created her subsequent actions as self-serving.

      All of this takes me to the theme of the book which, I believe, is how life would be if we are not encumbered. We don't have to play nice with each other, but we will continue to suffer inner turmoil. There are many unsettling truths as we desperately discover why we feel the way we do and the choices we have made.

      2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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    • Posted May 30, 2010

      more from this reviewer

      Wasn't quite what I expected after reading a review.

      The novel is about Billy Gertz, a playwriter who is very honest and forthright. The play she wrote is about a terrorist bombing on a train and about a man waiting to hear the fate of his estranged wife who is traveling on it. This sounds very interesting, but I cannot lie, I had difficulty getting through the book. Everytime I picked it back up to read, I had to re-read the last chapter just to get back into the story. This is probably a great book, but my high school education does not give me the benefit of appreciating this book and I do so apologize. It's a lot like the movie AVATAR, everyone else loved it, and I sat in my sit squirmy and shaking because I couldn't wait for it to be over. Read this book and I got a feeling you'll love it, it just wasn't for me.

      2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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    • Posted July 9, 2011

      Disappointing, might have been better

      This book might have been better if the author had fleshed out the characters more deeply, especially the main character, Billy. I think the premise, speculating how someone who lost a lover on 9/11, whom the survivor was no longer in love with was an intriguing plotline. However, Sue Miller did not do the subject justice in my opinion. Also the gratuitous political items (discussions between characters on upcoming elections) added nothing to the story and only served to make this reader unlikely to read another book by this author because of the obvious bent against Republicans.

      1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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    • Posted February 8, 2011

      more from this reviewer

      A study in grief

      If you are looking for a read with well developed characters struggling to deal with loss and loss of feeling, this is the read for you. Sadly short on hope, but a good tale of recovery with a glimmer of life moving forward.

      1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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    • Posted August 31, 2010

      Yawn

      If you like a book that moves at the speed of a snail, this is the book for you. It was redundant, long-winded, and all together pointless. It started out with great promise. I loved the play. Then it just pretty much stopped dead in its tracks. The same events are retold by other characters to, I suppose, get their point of view. Problem is that their point of view really didn't vary from the first telling.

      There are many readers who enjoy page after page of nothing really happening. I'm not one of them. I don't read a book for someone to take three pages to walk in the room. I like books where they walk in the room and something happens in the same sentence. Reading this was torture for someone like me.

      1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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    • Posted May 5, 2010

      I Also Recommend:

      Another great book by Sue Miller

      I read this book in two days. I could not put it down. I was a little confused at first by the characters and "who's who", but once I figured them out I found them all to be enthralling and an excellent read. Miller does character portrayls so well, makes us feel like we know the person. Not as good as While I Was Gone or A Good Mother, but definitely worth the ready.

      1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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    • Posted April 8, 2010

      Good

      I like this novel. It really touched my heart. Actually I have read a lot of books, but this one still gives me a lot of exciting.

      1 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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    • Anonymous

      Posted June 19, 2014

      Sayaka

      She walked to the shore of the lake, looking down at the water. It moved softly, but otherwise nothing peered at her from the depths. Her eyes turned to Izzy. "What is it?" She asked, setting a hand on her sword hilt, mre for comfort than out of possibility she may need it.

      Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
    • Posted October 25, 2012

      Great title, but too much tension with BOTH 9/ll and a Chicago t

      Great title, but too much tension with BOTH 9/ll and a Chicago terrorist bombing. One longs for a good story, like a sequel to THE WORLD BELOW, interweaving Fiona (a well liked character who needed deeper development), Jessie (an unknown except for her incredible will to live outside the hospital nursery), Catherine (who's kinda shallow, passionless, and judgmental, but good, of course), and Samuel, who could provide the spark to unite them all back in Vermont. This time, given the background of the diaries and all the deaths and divorces, with more joy and insight into lives filled with realistic challenges and a lot more fun!

      Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
    • Anonymous

      Posted July 25, 2012

      Not her best novel

      I chose this book because i enjoyed the senators wife. This did not measure up. Disappoonnting.

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    • Anonymous

      Posted September 16, 2011

      Nook/ereader app issues

      I'm not able to access this book to read it, even though I paid for it. I have tried through both my nook and ereader app. Very disappointed to spend money and now have to hassle with figuring out how to access it to read it. Sorry, I really wanted the nook app over Kindle, but, I have been able to buy a book from amazon and start reading it within minutes on my Kindle app. I hate to give a bad review to a book I am sure it great, so I picked a 3, otherwise I would give the nook and ereader apps a 1-

      0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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      Posted June 11, 2012

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      Posted August 22, 2010

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      Posted April 6, 2010

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      Posted May 30, 2011

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      Posted April 8, 2010

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