The Washington Post
The Lake Shore Limitedby Sue Miller
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 New York Times Book Review
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—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.”
—The New York Times Book Review
“Richly layered . . . subtle, piquant, satisfying. Reading Sue Miller is like watching an invisible painter create a lovely, affecting work in smooth, expert strokes.”
—San Francisco Chronicle
“Haunting. . . . Its power grows from Miller’s intimate understanding of her characters . . . of missed connections, lost opportunities, and closely held memories that mutate slowly over time. . . . 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
“Deeply moving. . . . [A] great accomplishment. . . . What [Miller is] doing seems easy, the most natural of narratives. And yet, stepping back to consider how precisely she was able to get any one character from here to there is enough to show us the subtlety of her art.”
“Miller seeks and impressively succeeds in finding what Wordsworth called ‘a plainer and more emphatic language’ to express ‘essential passions of the heart.’ Her art is to find those passions and that language in the streets and parks of the Boston she knows and writes about so well.”
“An engaging, mature book. . . . Immensely satisfying, in concept, content and craftsmanship. . . . Miller is so skilled at the psychological deep-dive.”
“Miller has written gripping novels that shrewdly tap the domestic zeitgeist. . . . [The Lake Shore Limited] continues the trend, exploring the fragility of love—and life—in the post-9/11 era. . . . Another graceful, poignant romance that resonates with the times.”
“Calmly perceptive. . . . Miller is a remarkably graceful writer who sweeps you up in her flow of words, in her ability to make a character seem like someone we know.”
—The Seattle Times
“An ensemble novel about love, loss, and the discontents of middle age.”
“Miller never disappoints and always surprises.”
—The Miami Herald
“Miller [is] among our foremost social anthropologists. . . . The reader can count on spending time with well-intentioned but flawed individuals who slip, hurt each other and are pummeled by the consequences, yet remain hopeful. . . . The characters are so real that it’s startling to close the book on them at the end.”
“Miller takes the reader into cinematic, three-dimensional life where men and women live through realistically complicated challenges in the midst of ordinary lives. Through each character’s self-reflection, she seems to be asking how are we doing now, in this time, in this place? The conclusion is hopeful.”
“With the surety of a master, Miller reveals the intersection of love and fate among [her] characters.”
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Read an Excerpt
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.
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.
- Boston, Massachusetts
- Date of Birth:
- November 29, 1943
- Place of Birth:
- Chicago, Illinois
- B.A., Radcliffe College, 1964; M.A.T., Wesleyan U., 1965; Ed.M., Harvard U., 1975; M.A. Boston U., 1980
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
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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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
I chose this book because i enjoyed the senators wife. This did not measure up. Disappoonnting.
A couple, Leslie and Pierce, are visiting Boston for the opening of a show written by Billy, former lover of Leslie’s brother Gus who was murdered in a plane crash on 9/11. The show is not supposed to be about 9/11, but it definitely evokes thoughts about it, especially for Leslie. As Leslie witnesses the actor’s portrayal of characteristics which seem to be taken from her brother Gus, and his former lover’s feelings about their family and sundry life events, she becomes aware of a bit of the personal life and problems that must have existed between her brother and Billy, upsetting problems she was unaware of until she saw the play. On stage, the story, on the surface, is about a couple, Gabriel and Elizabeth. Elizabeth has had thoughts questioning their future together and has gone off to think. Gabriel has also questioned their relationship and has been restless and unfaithful. The train returning her home was involved in a terrorist attack and whether or not she survives, and the reaction to that possibility, is the crux of the story. Secrets are exposed which cause pain, and ultimately renewal in some cases, even offering some a second chance at life. There are many parallels in the lives of the actors on stage and those of the audience, particularly to Leslie and her friend Sam, whom she has invited to meet Billy, and to Billy and Gus. Viewing the play causes conflict in Leslie and somewhat of an epiphany in Sam, regarding his past relationships. The main actor, Gabriel (Rafe), brings his own grief and suffering to the part he plays, which makes his performance even more real to the audience and inspires him to rethink his life and change his ways. The play itself raises many questions which the audience appreciates and investigates long after it is over. I listened to the narrative which was read by the author. She did an admirable job but might have been better served by a professional reader with a more resonant, expressive voice, rather than hers which was a bit scratchy. Still, it was a good reading of the book. Also, if the too explicit, unseemly sexual descriptions had been left out and the insensitive and unwarranted political points of view had been deleted, I would have given the book four stars, instead of three. These two issues, so superciliously expressed, detracted me so much from the main theme of the story, however, that I could not. Both had nothing to do with the theme of the story, did not enhance it, and simply served to allow her to use her bully pulpit to spread her liberal ideas to a wider audience, even contested points of view. I dislike when an author foists an unrequested political view upon the reader, often views they may not share, when they are not pertinent to the substance of the novel. It is for this reason that I dialed back my rating on the book. I read about how the author recognized the value of a play when it caused the viewers to explore their own feelings and lives, as a result of seeing it. In much the same way, I think a book impacts the reader’s life, when the readers use the experience to examine the lives they lead. Perhaps this is such a book.