I'd almost forgotten the numerous and complex pleasures I found in Sue Miller's bestselling first novel, The Good Mother. I'd almost forgotten the way she can build a house, furnish it sumptuously and invite a reader to live there for a while--to experience both the warmth and the claustrophobia that living in a house--or more significantly--living within a family engenders. But I'd only gotten a couple of chapters into her latest offering, Lost in the Forest, when I suddenly remembered the cottage by the lake where the character in The Good Mother vacationed as a child. Though the lovingly remodeled Victorian home or the lush California vineyards where the new novel is set couldn't be further from the musty quiet of the New England cottage by the lake, they are connected by Miller's ability to render sensual details.
I was also reminded that when she is in top form as she is in Lost in the Forest, no one does families better than Sue Miller--particularly the kind of jumbled up "new" families that many of us find ourselves in these days. In Miller's families, good people, loving people, fail each other in myriad ways, whether it is by distraction or self-absorption, or ordinary human weakness. And frequently, they find their way back to one another in similarly bumbling ways. Or do not and learn to live with the consequences.
Frequently, in Miller's world, it is the inherent selfishness and unpredictability of sexuality that is set against family and home, besieging it with the force of a class five hurricane. And yet, no one portrays sexuality more honestly, more vividly--or more just plain beautifully--than Sue Miller does. In one passage, she describes a young girl's nascent sexual pleasure as "a house she was moving through which opened up, room after unexpected room, each one more full of light."
As a variation on the classic Lolita story, Lost in the Forest, is in many ways, told with greater complexity and insight than the original. In Miller's version, the eroticism and exploitation is not just something that occurs between an adolescent girl and a much older man; it is something that happens between their pasts and their futures, something that tries to exclude her parents and his wife and all the other people who are part of them, but which only serves to weave them together in new and startling ways.
But above all, this novel is a quest for meaning. What do the dark hills mean as they open out before Mark when he drives through his vineyard at dusk? What is it that Daisy cries for so passionately in the middle of the night, her lonely howl piercing both her adolescence and the heart of the novel? And above all, what does the life of the stepfather who is hit and killed by a car just before the novel opens mean? Though he appears in the narrative only as a memory, John's stability, and humor and simple good heartedness permeates the novel, and forms its central question. Could such a life possibly have been meaningless?
In the end, Miller's characters answer that question with a negative, each in their own way: Eva with a return to conventional faith, Mark by forgiving himself the mistakes of his past and embarking hopefully on a new marriage, and Daisy through her art. But no one answers the question more poignantly than John's young son, Theo, who witnessed his death. After years of silence on the subject, Theo finally remembers the incident in one of the novel's most luminous moments. Standing on a street corner with his mother, he suddenly recalls the violent moment when their world was forever changed. "My dad flew," he announces to his mother gravely. "That time he died, remember...when my dad flew?"
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