21 Dec / The Lake Shore Limited by Sue Miller
Gus – beloved brother, favorite teacher, a vibrant, sunny young man in love – is a victim of 9-11. His presence looms on every page, although his actual words can only be filtered through someone else’s memory throughout the novel. Still, he proves to be the pivotal character who brings together a quartet of protagonists, each trying to come to terms with – both directly and as a result of – their relationship with Gus, and each other. Going audible here is highly recommended as Miller offers the gift of herself reading aloud – evenly, thoughtfully, truthfully.
The foursome gather in a darkened theater for the premiere of a brand new play, the eponymous The Lake Shore Limited. On stage, a man named Gabriel waits to hear from, or at least about, his wife Elizabeth, who was on a Chicago train that has been bombed by terrorists. While the details of the horrific act has been changed, Gabriel and Elizabeth’s complicated relationship is clearly a minimally disguised stand-in for Billy and Gus’ interactions. Billy is the playwright, and she was Gus’s live-in lover when 9-11 destroyed thousands of lives.
Facing the bright lights, an actor named Rafe embodies all the ambivalence of a relationship in flux, confronted with possible tragedy. From the audience, Gus’ older sister Leslie watches carefully, together with her husband and their friend Sam. Once the curtain falls, they will share a post-show dinner with Billy – at a nearby restaurant called the Butcher Shop, where they are surrounded by refrigerated carcasses seen through backlit glass doors. The significance seems to be a brutal reminder of the dissection of relationships to come.
Rafe, glimpsed by Billy, from the restaurant window, will go home to his wife, a woman he loved enough to marry twice, who is now riddled with a fatal disease that is robbing her of her body, that has trapped the couple in an agonizing limbo. Leslie – so much older than Gus, who was the mother their mother could not be for him – and her husband, will recognize too much and still not enough about Gus and Billy. Their friend Sam and Billy will share a spark, and yet Billy will play at denial as long as she can.
Miller, who masterfully examines the minutia of relationships with such care and insight in each of her novels, certainly doesn’t disappoint here. Moving effortlessly from past and present, from Billy to Rafe to Leslie to Sam, Miller captures lost Gus through the lives of others, their various marriages and couplings, purposeful betrayals, long-held lies, buried secrets, recurring guilt, and undeniable hope. Somehow, the dead young man will bring about the promise new beginnings …