Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Lake Shore Limited by Sue Miller

One of the great things about our move to Florida is that I'm now driving distance to my family.  My sister is outside of Boca Raton, which is only 2-1/2 hours away, and my parents are up in Panama City, a comfortable 500 miles away.  (No stopping in unexpectedly--lol.)   I decided to visit my sister during Jay's extended absence sailing our new boat home from Delaware (to read about his experience, go to and decided to bring Sue Miller's Lake Shore Limited along for the ride.

I had not been listening to the book for long when I realized that I had inadvertently stumbled upon a 9/11 story.  (The "book" jacket just talks about a violent event that changes people's lives so I really wasn't expecting this.) Miller tells her story through the eyes of four characters:  Leslie, Rafe, Billie and Sam.  Billie is a playwright whose latest work, "Lake Shore Limited", is being put on in Boston.  As the story unfolds, we learn that Billie was living with a man named Gus who was on one of the planes that was hijacked on 9/11.  Leslie is Gus' sister and, although several years have passed, still sharply feels his loss.  She and her husband come to Boston from their home in New Hampshire to see the play and she invites her friend Sam along, with the thought of introducing Sam and Billie.  She has mixed feelings about the introduction for a number of reasons, not the least of which is wanting to preserve her image of Billie as the mourning lover.

The play takes Leslie by surprise as much as the book took me by surprise.  It is a thinly veiled allusion to the events of 9/11 told from the perspective of Gabriel, a man who is waiting to find out if his wife was one of the victims of a terrorist bombing of a train.  The moral dilemma for him is to determine how he feels about this prospect since he and his wife have grown apart--perhaps irreparably--and he has taken a lover.  Will he be relieved if she's dead?  Will it make him realize that in fact he did love her?  As he tries to sort this out, he recalls his relationship with his wife with a "pentimento of emotions", the ghost of emotions that have been painted over as their relationship changed over the years.  (This phrase particularly struck me since I was recently re-introduced to the concept of pentimento while at the Matisse exhibit which was the subject of one of my earlier posts.)  

The book goes on to tell the story of the other characters in relation to the play and how their own life experiences inform their reaction to the play.  You learn that Billie had decided to leave Gus before the events of 9/11.  You learn that Rafe, the actor who plays Gabriel, has a terminally ill wife at home.  You learn that Sam's first wife died after a prolonged bout with breast cancer.  You learn that the characters' reaction to the play changes over time.  This is true even for Billie, the playwright, who sees the play differently after a twist in Rafe's performance one evening.

I too brought my own experiences to the story.  On 9/11, Jay and I drove to Jersey City to work and had a fight on the way in.  I went up to my office with a view of the WTC and Jay took the Path over to downtown Manhattan.  By the time his train got across the river, the first plane had already hit. When Jay got out of the train in the basement of the WTC, cops were all over the place, urging the passengers to quickly depart the station.  He had no idea what was going on and thought there was either a bomb threat or some kind of police chase.  When he emerged from the building there was soot falling out of the sky like a rain shower.  In the midst of the confusion he was able to phone and let me know that he was okay.  At this point we had no idea about what had happened and could not anticipate the terrible things yet to come.  From my office window I had a front row view of the further horrifying events of the morning.  I watched the second plane crash into the Towers.  Our building--the tallest in Jersey City at the time--was evacuated and we all wandered the streets with no idea what was happening, what we should do or where we should go.  I ended up going back up to my office with a couple of colleagues where I witnessed the Towers coming down.  Even though almost ten years have passed, I can feel the horror of that day as if it were yesterday.  Throughout this time, I thought about the fact that Jay and I had had a fight that morning.  I had talked to him after the first plane hit but I didn't know where he was at the moment.  I thought he was probably fine but thinking is not the same as knowing.  What if the sharp words that we had in the car were the last we ever spoke?  Luckily for me, that wasn't the case, but it could have been, and it probably was for at least some of the people whose loved ones were victims of 9/11.

The story that is told in Lake Shore Limited  is emotionally brutal in its honesty.   It is not easy to listen to and I'm sure it wouldn't be easy to read.  We all have complicated emotional lives, and an event such as 9/11 puts them in sharper relief than usual.  Though this wasn't the theme of the book, it makes me remember that I shouldn't take the good things in my life for granted.  You never know when they might be taken away from you.

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