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Originally published Saturday, April 3, 2010 at 7:03 PM

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Book review

'The Lake Shore Limited': Sue Miller's novel of 4 lives shaped by loss

Sue Miller's "The Lake Shore Limited" is the story of four characters whose lives are shaped by the loss of a friend on 9/11. Miller appears Saturday at Third Place Books in Lake Forest Park.

Special to The Seattle Times

Author appearance

Sue Miller

The author of "The Lake Shore Limited" will read at 6:30 p.m. Saturday at Third Place Books in Lake Forest Park; free (206-366-3333 or www.thirdplacebooks.com).

'The Lake Shore Limited'

by Sue Miller

Knopf, 288 pp., $25.95

A ghost wanders through Sue Miller's calmly perceptive new novel, "The Lake Shore Limited"; a character long gone, whose absence still affects and motivates those who knew him. He is Gus, a young man who died in a plane on what this book calls "Nine-Eleven," and as an absent character he is shaped and perhaps changed by those who remember him.

Miller, whose previous novels include "The Senator's Wife" and "The Good Mother," divides this book's point of view among four characters whose lives entwine. Leslie, Gus' older sister, lives in contentment with her husband but at one point cherished a brief, never-consummated infatuation with kind, once-widowed/once-divorced Sam.

Billy (short for Wilhelmina — "No one is named Wilhelmina" snorts a friend of Sam's) is a playwright who was once Gus' lover — his "fiancée," according to Leslie, who has taken a motherly interest in Billy to the point of fixing her up with Sam. And Rafe, an actor in Billy's play, copes with his terminally ill wife, his attraction toward Billy, and the often devastating way that acting requires the use of one's personal pain to make art.

The same is true for Billy, whose play, called "The Lake Shore Limited," is a drama inspired by the loss of Gus (about a man, played by Rafe, whose wife takes a train that is the target of a bombing).

All of the main characters gather at a small Boston theater in the book's opening section: Leslie, Sam and Billy in the audience, watching Rafe on stage. From there, the story continues in a series of small, almost mundane events — a first date, a minor accident, a companionable evening with a grown son — flavored by a constant stream of memories.

Miller is a remarkably graceful writer who sweeps you up in her flow of words, in her ability to make a character seem like someone we know. And there's a lovely house-of-mirrors effect in Miller's use of Billy's play as the book's story-within-a-story: We watch Billy and Rafe as they go through the process of creativity, wondering how close that might be to Miller's as she creates them.

Before going onstage, Rafe stares into a mirror as himself made up as his character Gabriel, "the man he's made, and made his own, the man whose grief drinks from his own grief, whose joy eats his joy, but whom he uses, over and over, to escape his grief and joy, to make them commodity, currency."

And there's another mirror in the book, as Sam drives out to Leslie's house to watch her and her husband Pierce on an ordinary evening. Sam sits in his car, in the dark, watching as Leslie sets the table, as Pierce raises his head from his reading and speaks to her, as they laugh together. "It was so ordinary, so unremarkable, but for Sam it had the potency of a Vermeer," writes Miller — and what does a novelist do but observe something in the darkness, and turn it into art? It was, ponders Sam, "as if he were blessing it, its very ordinariness, by witnessing it."

Moira Macdonald is the movie critic for The Seattle Times.

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