Four unforgettable characters beckon you into this spellbinding new novel from Sue Miller, the author of 2008’s heralded best seller The Senator’s Wife. First among them is Wilhelmina—Billy—Gertz, small as a child, fiercely independent, powerfully committed to her work as a playwright. The story itself centers on The Lake Shore Limited—a play Billy has written about an imagined terrorist bombing of that train as it pulls into Union Station in Chicago, and about a man waiting to hear the fate of his estranged wife, who is traveling on it. Billy had waited in just such a way on 9/11 to hear whether her lover, Gus, was on one of the planes used in the attack.
The novel moves from the snow-filled woods of Vermont to the rainy brick sidewalks of Boston as the lives of the other characters intersect and interweave with Billy’s: Leslie, Gus’s sister, still driven by grief years after her brother’s death; Rafe, the actor who rises to greatness in a performance inspired by a night of incandescent lovemaking; and Sam, a man irresistibly drawn to Billy after he sees the play that so clearly displays the terrible conflicts and ambivalence of her situation.
How Billy has come to create the play out of these emotions, how it is then created anew on the stage, how the performance itself touches and changes the other characters’ lives—these form the thread that binds them all together and drives the novel compulsively forward.
A powerful love story; a mesmerizing tale of entanglements, connections, and inconsolable losses; a marvelous reflection on the meaning of grace and the uses of sorrow, in life and in art: The Lake Shore Limited is Sue Miller at her dazzling best.
Sue Miller is the best-selling author of the novels Lost in the Forest, The World Below, While I Was Gone, The Distinguished Guest, For Love, Family Pictures, and The Good Mother; the story collection Inventing the Abbots; and the memoir The Story of My Father. She lives in Boston, Massachussetts.
From our Q&A with Sue Miller:
Q: The Lake Shore Limited takes its title from the famous train, but it is also the title of a play embedded within this novel—a play about a terrorist bombing of that train as it pulls into Union Station in Chicago, and a man waiting to hear whether his estranged wife is among the survivors. Billy Gertz, the woman who’s written the play, has waited in just such a way on 9/11 to hear whether her lover, Gus, was on one of the planes used in that attack. Was there one event in particular that sparked the idea for The Lake Shore Limited?
A: Yes. The spark came from a friend who had a relationship that would have ended sooner than it did had not her lover’s brother died on 9/11. While this situation is not like the one I created for Billy, my fictional playwright, the situation started me thinking about the far reach of such an event; and the variety of responses that play out around it, even at some distance. And the way in which the responses may be based in feelings that might be not the expected one—i.e., the way in which sometimes we’re called on to enact something we don’t feel, and the discomfort and sense of alienation from ourselves that comes from that.
Q: Much of the book centers around the characters’ reactions to Billy’s play, “The Lake Shore Limited”. How and why did you structure the book as, in essence, a play within a play?
A: As I began to include some of the lines from the play and create scenes in rehearsal, it began to seem more important to me. It began to seem central to the book, actually. I began to see the book as at least in part a kind of speculation on how the experience of art can be transforming in life—for those who create it, as Billy and also Rafe, the actor, do; and for those who take it in and ponder it and ask about its connections to their own lives. And then, I suppose, I just got interested in the play, too—in writing it, at least the part you read in the book.