This ambitious novel from the author of the Oprah's Book Club selection While I Was Gone is set into two time periods, post-WWI America and the present day. The World Below renders the disparate yet parallel stories of a grandmother and her granddaughter. In 1919, teenage Georgia Rice paradoxically receives a new lease on life when she is sent to a tuberculosis sanitarium. More than 80 years later, Catherine Hubbard, Georgia's granddaughter, moves into her grandmother's house following her own divorce. Each story is strengthened by the other.
The World Below takes its title from something the narrator, Catherine, sees on a childhood fishing expedition with her grandfather: an entire Vermont town submerged after a dam was built. As a divorced adult, Catherine returns to the area and discovers her grandmother's diaries in the house she has inherited, and she comes to associate the mystery and tranquillity of the town in the lake with the lives of her grandparents. Miller evokes the couple's small-town idyll—" the lilac and fidelity" of their lives together—with details so plain as to be absolutely convincing, such as Catherine's grandmother's practical lesson in "how to sew on a coat button tight enough to stay, loose enough to be workable." The author also captures the exceptional and the frightening, summing up the terror of a violent storm in a single detail: "A wooden chair came skidding drunkenly across the yard, stopped, then hurried on." Here are lives scrupulously observed and reflected upon, and the result is that we read with a kind of greedy rapture, captivated by the austerities and small pleasures of daily life as if they were the wonders of Aladdin.
While Miller's gorgeous new novel, her sixth, works graceful variations of her perennial theme - our intimate betrayals - it also explores new terrain for the author: just what we can know of the past and of its influence on us. At the heart of Miller's story are two women, 52-year-old Catherine Hubbard and Catherine's now-deceased grandmother, Georgia Rice Holbrooke. At first blush, Catherine and Georgia couldn't seem more different. Catherine is a twice-divorced San Francisco schoolteacher, while her grandmother was a faithful country doctor's wife. But as the novel progresses, parallels emerge - the early deaths of their mothers, for instance - and their lives come to seem more deeply entwined. As the novel opens, Catherine and her brother have just inherited Georgia's old house in Vermont, and it is up to Catherine to figure out what to do with it. Still shell-shocked from her second divorce, Catherine decides to give life in Vermont a try, and, once settled, she discovers diaries and account books her grandmother kept, books that allow Catherine to reconstruct her grandmother's life. What Catherine discovers is a world she never imagined beneath the placid surface of Georgia's life. While she knew that Georgia was sent to a sanatorium for tuberculosis, she did not know the "san" changed Georgia's life. As Catherine sorts through her grandmother's life, she also sorts through her own: her mother's death, her two marriages, her boyfriends and her children. As readers have come to expect, Miller limns contemporary life in deft, sure strokes, with an unerring ear for the way parents and children talk; no one can parse a modern marriage as well as she can. But in this novel Miller'sspecial gift to readers is her rendering of Georgia's life, particularly the two love stories that mark it. Miller portrays the feverish period in the san - the intrigues, the romances, the very romance of taking a cure - vividly and sensuously. (Surely her research was rigorous.) Likewise, Miller captures the early, fragile years of Georgia's marriage with great poignancy, ever dividing our sympathies between Georgia and her husband. In the Holbrookes, Miller has created a marriage that survives despite its fault lines, a marriage that seems both modern and old-fashioned: recognizably fraught, yet enduring, the sort of marriage readers hunger to read about. Perhaps that's why this novel is so satisfying. Random House audio (ISBN 0-375-41993-4). (Oct.) Forecast: Miller's many, many (mostly female) fans will relish this dip into the past, released in a 200,000-copy first printing. A 20-city author tour, advertising on Oprah and word-of-mouth should attract plenty of new readers, too.
Miller (While I Was Gone) has a remarkable talent for paying scrupulous attention to the details of domestic life and nuances of personal relationships and then, with such seeming ease, relating them both truthfully and lovingly. Here she also shows the timelessness of the courses that human lives can take and the events that shape them. At 52, twice-divorced Cath Hubbard takes a sabbatical from her San Francisco teaching job to take possession of her grandparents' home. Contemplating starting a new life there in small-town Vermont, she uncovers truths about her beloved grandmother, Georgia Rice, on whom much of the story centers. Confined to a tuberculosis sanatorium before she was 20, Georgia found a different world with rules of its own where people behaved "scandalously," and her life was irrevocably changed. Cath finds parallels between her life and that of her Gran and insight into her grandparents' marriage that sheds light on her own failed ones, as events take the path of her own life out of her hands. A beautifully crafted and supremely satisfying work of fiction. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 6/1/01.] Michele Leber, Fairfax Cty. P.L., VA Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
"Vintage Miller: a quiet, subtle story of longing, loss, and the compensations that, surprisingly, satisfy and endure."Kirkus Reviews