THE WORLD BELOW

Sue Miller, Author
Sue Miller, Author . Knopf $25 (288p) ISBN 978-0-375-41094-9
Reviewed on: 07/16/2001
Release date: 10/01/2001
Hardcover - 436 pages - 978-0-375-43131-9
Compact Disc - 978-0-375-41994-2
Analog Audio Cassette - 978-0-375-41993-5
Paperback - 304 pages - 978-0-345-44076-1
Mass Market Paperbound - 336 pages - 978-0-345-48106-1
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While Miller's gorgeous new novel, her sixth, works graceful variations on her perennial theme—our intimate betrayals—it also explores new terrain for the author: just what we can know of the past and of its influence on us. At the heart of Miller's story are two women, 52-year-old Catherine Hubbard and Catherine's now-deceased grandmother, Georgia Rice Holbrooke. At first blush, Catherine and Georgia couldn't seem more different. Catherine is a twice-divorced San Francisco schoolteacher, while her grandmother was a faithful country doctor's wife. But as the novel progresses, parallels emerge—the early deaths of their mothers, for instance—and their lives come to seem more deeply entwined.

As the novel opens, Catherine and her brother have just inherited Georgia's old house in Vermont, and it is up to Catherine to figure out what to do with it. Still shell-shocked from her second divorce, Catherine decides to give life in Vermont a try, and, once settled, she discovers diaries and account books her grandmother kept, books that allow Catherine to reconstruct her grandmother's life. What Catherine discovers is a world she never imagined beneath the placid surface of Georgia's life. While she knew that Georgia was sent to a sanatorium for tuberculosis, she did not know the "san" changed Georgia's life. As Catherine sorts through her grandmother's life, she also sorts through her own: her mother's death, her two marriages, her boyfriends and her children.

As readers have come to expect, Miller limns contemporary life in deft, sure strokes, with an unerring ear for the way parents and children talk; no one can parse a modern marriage as well as she can. But in this novel Miller's special gift to readers is her rendering of Georgia's life, particularly the two love stories that mark it. Miller portrays the feverish period in the san—the intrigues, the romances, the very romance of taking a cure—vividly and sensuously. (Surely her research was rigorous.) Likewise, Miller captures the early, fragile years of Georgia's marriage with great poignancy, ever dividing our sympathies between Georgia and her husband. In the Holbrookes, Miller has created a marriage that survives despite its fault lines, a marriage that seems both modern and old-fashioned: recognizably fraught, yet enduring, the sort of marriage readers hunger to read about. Perhaps that's why this novel is so satisfying. Random House audio (ISBN 0-375-41993-4).(Oct.)

Forecast:Miller's many, many (mostly female) fans will relish this dip into the past, released in a 200,000-copy first printing. A 20-city author tour, advertising on Oprah and word-of-mouth should attract plenty of new readers, too.

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