There is nothing remarkable about the plot of Sue Miller's graceful novel, The World Below
. Cath Hubbard, a San Francisco woman in her 50s, returns to her grandmother's small Vermont house after the death of an aunt who left the property to Cath and her brother Lawrence. Cath had lived with her grandparents for a few years in her teens, after her mother's suicide, and now makes her wounded way back, in the wake of a divorce, to sort through her memories of her beloved grandmother, Georgia. This is the standard fare of American literary fiction: a life change prompting a search into the past. What is far less ordinary is Miller's placid, nuanced depiction of her protagonist's emotional journey. None of Cath's feelings can be easily predicted by the reader, but all of them ring true. She finds her grandmother's diary and begins to fill in the stories that Georgia had hinted at over the years. What Cath discovers in her grandmother's journal is a secret that has lost its power to shock; and that very wearing away of taboo adds to the poignancy of Georgia's restricted life. Her story unfolds against a backdrop of Cath's more immediate griefs and concerns and begins to recede as Cath's San Francisco life returns to claim her. Miller's prose appears effortless, but is like the gestures of a magician that conceal how the trick is accomplished. The result is a sage, continually surprising novel about finding peace of mind in a combination of habit, love, and self-determination. --Regina Marler
From Publishers Weekly
While Miller's gorgeous new novel, her sixth, works graceful variations of 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.
Copyright 2001 Reed Business Information, Inc.