Inside Sue Miller's latest novel lives a stage play of the same name about the bombing of a Chicago train line (yes, the Lake Shore Limited) and its immediate effect upon one ambivalently married middle-aged man.
The man's wife, it seems, is on the train. The play concerns the period between when he learns about the bombing and when he learns her fate.
The play-within-the-novel and the novel itself ask the same questions:
Isn't every married person ambivalent? Or, more broadly: Isn't every kind of happiness tinged with grief, just as every sorrow contains seeds of joy?
Pretty heady stuff, to be sure, but Ms. Miller, whose novels include "The Good Mother" and "The Senator's Wife," pulls off a meaningful exploration. I found this novel immensely satisfying, in concept, content and craftsmanship.
The novelist builds her story through long chapters in which she presents the lives of four connected characters.
Leslie is an upper-middle-aged married woman whose brother, Gus, died in a plane that hit the World Trade Center on Sept. 11. The book begins with Leslie's point of view as she and her husband prepare to attend the play, in Boston.
Leslie wants to see the play because Gus had been in love with the playwright, Billy, whose script reflects the emotional complications she experienced knowing a victim of 9/11.
Billy's a spitfire of a woman: independent, self-absorbed, a bit acerbic and not quite up to the job of victim.
Rafe, who portrays the lead character in the play, struggles with his career and, to an extent, the difficult role he plays here. His biggest burden, though, is his beloved wife, Lauren, who is slowly withering away from Lou Gehrig's disease. Much as he loves her, Rafe at times wishes it were all over, so that he might just get on with his life after Lauren.
The night of the opening, Leslie and her husband meet up with Sam, an old architect friend whom Leslie wants to introduce to Billy. Sam has two marriages under his belt and might or might not be up for a fix-up with Billy.
Ms. Miller is so skilled at the psychological deep-dive. One of my favorite scenes concerns Sam and his current wife, the ice-queen, Claire, who are driving home after dinner with Leslie and her husband.
"Not the brightest bulbs in the chandelier, are they?" Claire asks, and Sam -- who has strong affections for Leslie -- doesn't respond.
"Oh, I'm sorry," Claire says moments later. "I know they're your friends. I don't mean to dis them."
"Of course you do," Sam quietly tells her.
That small moment says everything about what divides them as husband and wife. But there are no dim bulbs here, which may be one flaw. Everyone is a smart, reflective, NPR-listening, politics-interested liberal.
Nothing wrong with such people (I'd like to think I'm one of them), though whenever I come across such fictional setups I wonder whether the writer knows there's a world beyond.
That's a misdemeanor in such an engaging, mature book. "The Lake Shore Limited" could have been written only after the novelist and her readers gained distance from the events of 9/11.
What that time symbolized for America was one thing. How individual survivors experienced it, Ms. Miller so ably shows, must have been much more complicated.
Karen Sandstrom is a writer and illustrator in Cleveland.