Sue Miller is simply one of the most deft and skillful novelists writing today, and any discussion of great fiction that leaves hers out is lacking something, if you ask me. The Lake Shore Limited, her latest, delivers everything readers have come to expect from Miller.
Of course, if you read mainly for plot, you’re probably not a Sue Miller fan. It’s fair to say that very little happens, in terms of big plot action, over the course of The Lake Shore Limited. Even though there’s a story about the 9/11 terrorist attacks at the core of this novel, that action is far in the past, and during the period of time covered by the novel, not much occurs. A playwright attends the first performance of her new play, as do several other people. The lead actor gives an excellent performance. Several people meet over dinner and drinks, and have conversations. Three couples have sex (only one coupling is described in any kind of graphic detail). People remember a lot of past events in lengthy, detailed flashbacks.
All that sounds like the antithesis of good novel writing, but it’s not. It’s just that you should be aware of what kind of novel you’re picking up — literary, thoughtful, reflective, heavy on character development. Miller’s four main characters — the playwright, her dead lover’s sister, the sister’s friend who’s attracted to the playwright, and the lead actor in the play — are each given two chapters to develop their backstory and their present situation. Each of these chapters is filled with subtle touches that develop character; everything is shown, not told, leaving readers to do a lot of the work and draw their own conclusions. Sue Miller is definitely a thinking reader’s novelist, and reading her work in comparison to some of the crudely obvious characterization I’ve seen in other novels recently is a breath of fresh air. Don’t read her for fast-paced action, but do read her for deftly drawn characters in whose lives you can become completely absorbed.