For nearly two decades, since the publication of her iconic first novel, The Good Mother, 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. In each of her novels, Miller has written with exquisite precision about the experience of grace in daily life–the sudden, epiphanic recognition of the extraordinary amid the ordinary–as well as the sharp and unexpected motions of the human heart away from it, toward an unruly netherworld of upheaval and desire. But never before have Miller’s powers been keener or more transfixing than they are in Lost in the Forest, a novel set in the vineyards of Northern California that tells the story of a young girl who, in the wake of a tragic accident, seeks solace in a damaging love affair with a much older man.
Eva, a divorced and happily remarried mother of three, runs a small bookstore in a town north of San Francisco. When her second husband, John, is killed in a car accident, her family’s fragile peace is once again overtaken by loss. Emily, the eldest, must grapple with newfound independence and responsibility. Theo, the youngest, can only begin to fathom his father’s death. But for Daisy, the middle child, John’s absence opens up a world of bewilderment, exposing her at the onset of adolescence to the chaos and instability that hover just beyond the safety of parental love. In her sorrow, Daisy embarks on a harrowing sexual odyssey, a journey that will cast her even farther out onto the harsh promontory of adulthood and lost hope.
With astonishing sensuality and immediacy, Lost in the Forest moves through the most intimate realms of domestic life, from grief and sex to adolescence and marriage. It is a stunning, kaleidoscopic evocation of a family in crisis, written with delicacy and masterful care. For her lifelong fans and those just discovering Sue Miller for the first time, here is a rich and gorgeously layered tale of a family breaking apart and coming back together again: Sue Miller at her inimitable best.
About the Author
Sue Miller is the best-selling author of the novels 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.
Date of Birth:November 29, 1943
Place of Birth:Chicago, Illinois
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
Emily telephoned, his older daughter. "Can you come get us?" she said. "It's an emergency."
As usual, she didn't greet him, she didn't say hello at the start of the call. And also as usual, this bothered him, he felt a familiar pull of irritation at her voice, her tone. But even as he was listening to her, he was focused on steering the truck around the sharp curves in the narrow road, around several small heaps of rock that had slid down the steep hillside: he was feeling the pleasure he always took in the way the slanted afternoon light played on the yellowed grass and reddened leaves left in the vineyards, in the way the air smelled. He kept his voice neutral as he responded. "When? Now?"
In the background, behind her, Mark could hear someone give a sudden whoop. Festivities, he thought. As ever. Eva's face rose in his mindhis ex-wife. At the least excuse, there was a gathering at her house: to celebrate a birthdayreasonable enough; but also for a project completed, a team victory, a skill accomplished. You learned to ride a bike, you got a party thrown for you.
"Duh. Yes, Dad, now," Emily said. "That's what I mean."
He was headed north on 128 to a small vineyard he thought his crew should harvest tomorrow. He needed to check the grapes. But he could probably get Angel to do it if he had to. His windows were open. The noise of the rushing air made his daughter's voice on the car phone sound distant.
"So?" she said. "Can you?"
If his younger daughter, Daisy, had ever called him because of an emergency, it would have been a child's crisisnot making the basketball team, needing a ride somewhere that her mother or stepfather couldn't provide. But with Emily, this emergency was likely to be at least slightly serious, an emergency in near-adult terms. Terms he might even be sympathetic with.
But she would be taking charge again, and this was something he and his ex-wife had agreed that she should be discouragedno, freedfrom doing so often. He cleared his throat. "Maybe I should talk to your mom," he said. Yes. The approach to take.
"Dad!" she objected. He didn't answer for a long moment, and as if in response to this, her voice had changed when she spoke again. She sounded younger: "Mom can't talk right now. That's why we need you."
And with those words, we need you, it was settled. To be needed. Well. Mark thought of Emily's delicate oval face, her regular, pretty features, her curly dark hair, so like Eva'sall the things that were lovely about her. All the things that didn't piss him off. "Okay," he said. "Okay, as it happens, I can come. As it happens, I will."
She wouldn't be charmed. "Now?" she said impatiently.
"Now. Or, gimme ten or so." He was slowing, and as he pulled into a turnaround by the roadside, the truck bounced and his tires crunched on the dusty gravel.
"Okay." She sighed, in relief it seemed. "Just honk, though," she said. "We'll come out. Oh, and Dad?"
"It's for overnight."
It could not be for overnight. He had plans. He had a date. He was going to get laid. "Okay, sunshine," he said. "We'll work it all out."
She sighed again and hung up.
Twenty minutes or so later, when he pulled up at the curb in front of his ex-wife's large Victorian house, the door opened before he hit the horn and his younger daughter staggered out onto the wide porch, carrying her sleeping bag, her pack an oversize hump on her back. Daisy was barefoot. Her long brown legs were exposed nearly to the crotch in cutoff jeanslegs that were beginning to look less like sticks and more like a woman's, he noted. Emily came out the door after her, turned backward as if to fuss with something behind her.
Two pretty, dark, young women, one tall, one short: his daughters. He got out of the truck to go and help them. As he started up the walk, he saw Theo emerging from the house behind Emily. The little boy, not yet three, was carrying a brown paper grocery bag by its handles. Something stuck out of ita pillow? a blanket? He spotted Mark and smiled. Now Emily took Theo's hand to help him down the wide porch stairs. He paused on each one, and the bag plopped slowly from step to step behind him as he descended.
Mark met them on the walk. "Hey," he said. He kissed each girl on her head. They smelled identical, a ladylike herbal perfume: shared shampoo. He took Daisy's sleeping bag from her. "Theo!" he said, and extended his hand down to him. "To what do we owe this pleasure?"
"I'll explain it all to you," Emily called back. She had moved ahead of them down the walk, between the orderly gray-green procession of rosemary plants. She was tossing her stuff into the open back of the truck.
"So he's supposed to spend the night too?" Mark asked Daisy. Theo was not his son. Theo was his ex-wife's son, by her second marriage. He liked Theo. He was, in fact, charmed by himhe knew him well from various extended-family eventsbut he had never before been asked to babysit for him. And actually, no one had even asked.
Daisy shrugged. She looked, as she often did, sullen. Or evasive. Her face was narrower than Emily's, her nose still slightly too big on itshe was fourteenher eyebrows darker and thick. She had shot up within the last two years, and now she was only a few inches shorter than Mark. She carried it badly, trying to hide it. Mark had worried when she was younger that she would be plain, which seemed to him an almost unbearably sad thinga plain woman. Within the last six months or so, though, her face had changed and strengthened, and he saw that that wouldn't be the case. That she might, in fact, be better-looking than Emily in the end, more striking. It had made him easier around her, he realized.
They had caught up to Emily, who said again, "I'll explain it later." She sounded irritated, as though she were the adult and he a nagging child. She took Theo's hand and led him to the door of the truck's cab.
Mark went around to the driver's side. He opened his door and stood there looking across the cab's wide seat, waiting for Emily to look back at him. She wouldn't. Or she didn't. First she was helping the little boy clamber into the truck; now she climbed up herself and was busy buckling him in. When she finally raised her eyes and met her father's, he was ready. He lifted his hands. "Hey, Em," he said. "You will admit"
"Daddy, it's an emergency. A real emergency." Her eyes, he noted now, were red-rimmed, their lids swollen.
Theo looked over at him and nodded. "It's a mergency," he said, and inserted his thumb into his mouth with an air of finality.
Daisy squeezed in next to Emily, and Mark got in and started the truck. He pulled into the street. After nearly a full minute had passed, he asked, "So, the nature of this emergency is . . .?"
He could feel Emily's gaze on him, and he looked at her. She was frowningher dark eyebrows made fierce lines. She shook her head. "We can't . . . we shouldn't . . . talk about it now." She gestured at Theo, sitting between them, watching them soberly.
Mark nodded. After another long moment he said, "But at some point it will be revealed."
"Yeah," she said. She turned away, and when he looked over again, he saw that she and Daisy were holding hands. What the hell was going on? Daisy's mouth hung open stupidly, as though she'd been sucker punched.
They drove in near-total silence the whole way to his house. Everyone's eyes stayed devoutly on the road, as though the familiar scenes rolling pastthe valley as it widened out and spread the fall colors of its vineyards before them, the deep green of the hills riding along above it allwere some new and fascinating nature movie. Once Daisy said in a near-whisper, "Are those pills supposed to knock her out or something?" and Emily shrugged. That was it.
Knock who out? Not Eva, he thought. He imagined her, his ex-wifesmall, dark, quick moving, graceful. Her sudden sexy smile. Not Eva.
Above Calistoga, he turned in at the unmarked dirt road to his house. There were sparse, newly planted vineyards on either side of it. He had to swerve and dance the truck to avoid the ruts. He could feel Theo's weight swing against his side. After about a quarter of a mile, he pulled into his driveway and then up onto the cement pad where one day he planned to build a garage.
As soon as he cut the engine, they could hear the dogs barking in the house. The children started to unbuckle their seat belts, and he swung himself out of the truck. He began to gather their possessions from the back. They came and stood behind himsilent, oddly passive, waiting for their things to be put into their hands.
He led the way. When he opened the back door, the dogs shot out and started jumping around, abruptly quieted by their joy in being released. Their heavy tails whacked everyone.
Theo made a little noise of terror and delight and stepped between Mark's legs, gripping his thighs. Mark put his hands on the boy's narrow shoulders, and was instantly startledand then aware of being startled.
Why? Why did it feel so strange to touch the little boy?
Perhaps because he had anticipated the way the girls felt when they were Theo's size, when he had loved to touch them, to hold them. Theo's body was wiry and tense, utterly unlike theirs at the same age. It felt hot with energy.
"It's okay, big guy," Mark said gently. "They like you. They like kids like you."
Theo looked up at Mark, wide-eyed and alarmed. "They would like to eat me?" he asked. He was lighter-haired, lighter-skinned than the girls, and this difference somehow struck Mark as sad.
"No, no, no," Mark said. "They like to lick you, and play with you. You'll see. They're nice."
He squatted by Theo and held his own hand out to Fanny to be licked. When Theo imitated him after a moment, Fanny's long, rough tongue came out and stroked the boy's hand too. He snatched his arm back and jigged a little in fear and pleasure, a prancey running in place. He wore miniature red high-top sneakers. His striped socks had slid down almost entirely into them. One of his knees was thickly scabbed.
Emily and Daisy had disappeared immediately into the house, to put their things away, Mark assumed. He stood up. Theo grabbed his hand, and walked right next to Mark, into the kitchen, through it, virtually riding his left leg and talking all the while to the dogs: "No bite me! Bad dog! Bad, bad dog! No bite!"
Mark was feeling a rising, irritated frustration, which he didn't want to focus on the little boy. He gestured across the living room, toward the back of the house. "Let's go figure out what everyone's up to, shall we?"
Theo looked up at Mark. "Yah," he answered.
Theo shadowed him to the doorway of the back room. The girls' beds nearly filled its narrow space. It was dark and underwatery in herethe one window faced out into an overgrown evergreen shrub, which Mark kept meaning to prune, and hadn't. The light that filtered through it was weak and greenish. Daisy was carefully spreading her unzipped bag out on her bed, as she always did. This was her strategy to avoid making it, a chore she hated. Emily was already lying down, one arm under her head, staring out the window at nothing. Ignoring him, Mark felt.
"A word with you, Em?" he said, his voice carefully neutral.
Both girls looked at him. They seemed startled, like sleepers he'd wakened. He turned to his younger daughter. "Daze, could you keep an eye on Theo for a minute? He's scared of the dogs."
"I not scared," Theo was instantly shrilling. "I a big boy. I not scared."
As Mark and Emily stepped toward the doorway, Daisy, who had flopped down onto her bed, was starting a game: "How big are you, Theo? Big as a . . . lion?"
"Yes!" the boy cried.
As soon as Mark shut the door to his room, Emily sat down heavily at the foot of his rumpled bed and said, "Oh, Daddy, it's John. John's dead." Her face twisted, and tears immediately began sliding down it, as though she'd been waiting until this moment to allow herself her full measure of grief.
"What do you mean?" John was Eva's husband, the girls' stepfather. Theo's father.
"He's dead, Daddy." Her hands came to her face now and covered her opened mouth. She inhaled sharply through her fingers, and then closed her eyes. "He got hit . . . by a car. A car hit him."
Mark pictured it. He pictured it wrong, as it turned out, but he saw John thenhis large body, bloody, slumped behind the wheel of his ruined car. He saw him dead, though he didn't believe it.
Mark sat down next to his daughter and held her, and she wept quietly and thoroughly, as he couldn't remember her weeping since he had told her he was moving outlong shuddering inhalations, and then a gentle high keening as her inheld breath came out. From the other bedroom he could hear Theo shrieking, "Bad! Bad!" and Daisy's voice trying to distract him.
"Sweetheart, it's okay. Cry, cry," he said. And then he said, "Shhh."
Though he was still thinking of John, still trying to take it in, he was also aware of thinking that it felt good, holding Emily. And of wondering when he had last held her, her or Daisy. He couldn't remember.
When she had calmed down a little, he stretched away from her to grab the box of tissues from the stand by the bed. She blew loudly, using several, and wiped her face. His shirt was wet where she had leaned against him.
"How did it happen?" he asked at last, keeping his voice gentle. "When?"
She seemed stricken again at the question, her eyes swam and grew larger, but she held on and whispered back, "This afternoon. A car just . . . hit him."
Mark cleared his throat. "He was driving?"
Reading Group Guide
1. Lost in the Forest opens with John’s death, a pivotal turning point for all the characters. How does each of them grapple with this loss differently? What does John represent to each of the children?
2. What does the title Lost in the Forest mean to you? Who, in the story, is lost? How is this image of a forest juxtaposed with the valley and vineyards of Napa?
3. Daisy’s name is a very evocative one. In what ways is she like a ﬂower waiting to bloom at the outset of the book? How does she bloom, and how does she wilt?
4. Early in the book, Mark refers to himself as “damaged goods” (p. 44). How does this mind-set affect his relationships with Eva, Emily, and Daisy? Who else in the novel might characterize him-or herself as damaged goods, and why?
5. Mark describes his early years of marriage with Eva as “further stumbling.” How does the pair grow together? In what ways do they complement each other, and how are they not a good match?
6. Why does Eva react to Mark’s affair so violently? Do you think she is justiﬁed or unjustiﬁed? Do you think that Gracie’s assessment of why Mark tells Eva about his affair is valid? Why or why not?
7. How is Eva’s relationship with John more of a rational decision about love? Do you think that makes it more or less powerful than the passionate connection she shares with Mark? Why does Mark decide he wants Eva back?
8. On their ﬁrst meeting, John asks Eva if a person drawn to books was seeking a kind of experience not available in ordinary life (p. 80). How would you answer this question?
9. How does Daisy resent Emily? How does she somehow feel superior toward her? How does Theo play into this dynamic?
10. Mark leaves Nebraska to “escape his role” in his family. How does Eva do something similar? How are both successful and unsuccessful in the quest to shake away the past? What of this legacy is passed along to their two daughters, and to Eva and John’s son, Theo?
11. How does Daisy’s relationship with both her father ﬁgures– Mark and John–seem similar to and different from that of Miranda and Prospero in The Tempest? How does each father shelter his daughter in markedly different ways?
12. How do Eva, Mark, and Daisy each express their yearning for belief? What roads do each of them take to ﬁnd a meaning of life beyond their own existences?
13. What compels Daisy to take money from her mother’s bookstore? How do you think it changes her? Why does she hide it, but not spend it? In what ways do her action enable Duncan to gain an initial hold over her?
14. When do you think that Daisy eventually realizes that her relationship with Duncan is dangerous and abusive? Do you think that her affair with Duncan empowers her in any way?
15. “Men have died from time to time and worms have eaten them, but not for love,” Duncan says to Daisy (p. 154). Why do you think Duncan shares such a cynical attitude with Daisy? How does it affect Daisy in the short term? The long term?
16. Why does discovering evidence of Duncan and Daisy’s affair change Mark’s life? Why do you think that Mark never confronts Duncan explicitly? What about the situation makes him anguished (p. 226)?
17. In what ways is Mark a rescuer? How does Daisy also rescue him?
18. Daisy becomes an actress, not the writer she predicts, when she “grows up.” How does this choice represent a shift in her personality? How is it a natural choice for her, and how is it surprising?
19. Daisy says that “the oldest I want to be is about twenty-ﬁve.” When the book ends, she is approximately that age. Do you think she agrees with Mark that everything good happens after that? How do you envision her adolescence and early adulthood, which we do not see in the book?
20. At the end of the book, Mark says he is happy. How is this different from the contentment that his mother says she feels? Do you believe that the other people who are important to him have also found happiness? What, to you, deﬁnes happiness?
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
I liked this book.I didn't think I would, but it drew me in. Great storylines about ea person, and then a decent follow-up chapter yrs later. A divorced womans new husband is killed tragically, and how this impacts her, her daughters with her ex husband, and her ex husband, and son from her new husband. How the youngest daughter goes in to an affair with an older man, a friend of the family, and results of that. 12/27/05
So I bought this because Stephen King gave it a glowing review in Entertainment Weekly? And umm...yeah. I have no idea why. It wasn't crap - but....ummmm...yeah.
I found this book very hard to get through. I felt the parents were incredibly irreponsible. There was also a very sexual tone to the whole book which was off-putting (and not just the explicit stuff). This may have been the author's intent. The father seemed like a complete idiot, but in the end, I guess he is supposed to have grown up (in his forties). The only appealing character was the little boy, Theo. Miller really did a great job with his dialogue and characteriztion - he comes across as a real little boy, and not a cliched cutesy kid. I must say this was my least favourite of Sue Miller's books - I really liked her other books. It make my angry and I did not learn anything new. The character Duncan is one of the most despicable I have come across lately!
My initial reaction to this was "mediocre." And then I was left wondering what the point of this story was. I believe the author was trying to examine the aftereffects of a family member's death, but that seemed almost inconsequential when examining this as a whole. It was almost a coming-of-age novel that missed the mark. The sexual relationship between a teenager & an older adult was somewhat disturbing, yes, but I thought even in general, the author seemed a bit more preoccupied with sexual content than necessary. This wasn't a complete waste of time -- the story had its moments, but ultimately it left me feeling very indifferent both to the story itself and to the characters.
Pale and dull, Boredomcrept in and around my earswhispering, "delete."
I did not like Lost in the Forest as much as the other Sue Miller novel I read, While I Was Gone. She is a master at "explaining" why people engage in descructive and immoral behavior. The Questions, "What got into her?" and "Where did that come from?" are do a great degree explained. However, in this book, the misguided and self destructive behaviors of the 15 year old daughter who get's intimately involved with a middle aged man are not as well explained to my mind as the lack of fidelity of the the happily married wife in "While I was Gone". Interestingly, I've noticed some readers making the same comment about about that character as I am making here. The point seems to be that people can understand the emotional drives that they themselves feel and cannot understand those that seem remote to them.Overall, I liked this book. I like the way things were resolved in the end. There was nothing earth shattering or extremely heroic. But there was a nice message of reconcilliation, growth, healing and even redemption through psychotherapy. But since I couldn't identify with the temptations leading the main character into her crisis, I could not appreciate the book all that much. I suppose that's why I can only give it only 3 stars.
Not something I would have picked up on my own, but that's why I joined a book club, after all. This is the story of a family dealing with a tragedy, each dealing in their own way. The hardest hit is the middle child - her older sister is busy with her own life, her parents don't really understand her - and she struggles with some very self-destructive behavior. I love the way the narrator's voice changes throughout the book, giving you a glimpse at the story from every angle. A quick read, but worth the time invested.
Fantastic book, really enjoyed it. Looking for more Sue Miller
Just about a perfect book, I'd say. Perfect seamless rendering of different points of view - was it only Mark and Daisy, or was the mother's in there? Wonderful perspective on marriage, and sexual initiation. A very nuanced, deeply thought-out, moral position.
A quick read that offers the reader a smooth ride through some rather serious, large issues. I found this book to be a nice change of pace from some of the bulkier, more intellectual fare I've been reading. I don't mean to say that this book lacks brains because it certainly doesn't. Reading this book is like putting on a pair of flannel pj's and slipping under the covers on a chilly night, and is in fact what you should read when you do so.
I am enjoying reading Sue Miller's books. They feel real, with a touch of heart-ache and tragedy; so a bit uncomfortable, but that's real life. Beautifully written story, with just enough hope and redemption to keep me turning the pages.
Slept in her den.
Seems like it took forever to get to the climax of the story. It was okay,not one of my favorites.
I am deeply disappointed that the 50 + year-old man (friend of the family-very typical) gets away with seducing a teenage girl who is very "lost" at this point in her life. The author's style of writing is easy to follow and does make the reader contemplate some life issues and some American cultural issues. I have read other books by this writer and I do think she is very good at describing contemporary society, but I also like accountability. This story left me with a bad/sad feeling.
The book was easy to read, although the author's writing style was sometimes difficult to follow. There were a lot of broken sentences. The characters were developed well, but no one was ever happy. The characters experienced: tragic death, divorce, child abuse, complete sadness and therapy sessions. It was not a book to make you feel good.
Daisy and I are complete opposites. Complete opposite lives, complete opposite personalities. I'm not extremely quiet, withdrawn; I have never cut piano lessons much less taken them; I never lied to my mother or went on a sexual journey with a man three times my age. Why, then, do I feel this vibe of similarity? It's the absent father. But, having an absent father has never fazed me like it did Daisy. It did more than faze her, actually. However, as I conclude, I daresay that I envy Daisy; I envy Daisy's father for my father; I envy that in the end, she got to know him, and he got to know her. Mark realized that Daisy needed him and he needed her. (Something my father failed to recognize). They both were wounded in some deep way, and they needed one another in order to heal. Even if there was still a scar left behind. Sue Miller's Lost in the Forest shows the importance of BOTH parents in the lives of their children. And, though this was not my type of book, I still give her props for it; it was well written and realistic. I liked it.
Iwas very disappointed in the book. A Middle aged man having an affair w// a minor. He should have been sentenced to prison.
I read Sue Miller years ago (While I Was Gone and The Good Mother). I must have liked her style to read multiple books, but after reading this one, I doubt I will read others. Other reviewers have gone into plot details. (I'll just note that the character who was seduced was 15, not 14, as if that makes a difference.) I thought that Miller's descriptions were 'gratuitous' if you will.