Learning about love real, ideal, married, maternal

April 04, 1993|By Anne Whitehouse

FOR LOVE. Sue Miller. HarperCollins.

301 pages. $23. Sue Miller writes about the treacherous emotional terrain of family life with vivid realism, insight and understanding. Her first novel, "The Good Mother," was a cautionary tale of contemporary single parenthood, focusing on the topical, difficult issue of childhood sexual abuse. "Family Pictures," her second novel, was a complex and generous study of a postwar, baby-boom family with an autistic child. What gave "Family Pictures" its power was Ms. Miller's ability to create a universe between parents who are temperamentally polar opposites and to show how their differences and conflicts are transmitted to their children.

The affairs of the heart of a middle-aged brother and sister, Cameron Reed and Lottie Reed Gardner, are the subject of "For Love," her new novel. After a separation of many years, Lottie and Cameron are involved in a project -- getting their mother's dilapidated house in condition to sell. Lottie's college-age son, Ryan, is working with them. Set in Cambridge, Mass., in 1988 -- the summer of Michael Dukakis' presidential campaign and of record rainfalls on the East Coast -- the novel moves between past and present as seen through Lottie's eyes.

We learn that the father of Lottie and Cameron was imprisoned for embezzlement and died when they were still children. Their ++ mother, now mentally confused and in a nursing home, was an abusive alcoholic who made do financially by taking boarders into her modest Cambridge home.

She equipped her children to be failures. Lottie grew up feeling inferior to neighbors such as Elizabeth Harbour, a tempestuous Cliffie who was her brother's girlfriend until she married someone more secure. Lottie, a college dropout and a divorced mother by the age of 25, gradually became successful as a writer of non-fiction books and articles.

When the novel opens, Lottie, now living in Chicago, is recently remarried to an oncologist, Jack, who had become her lover while his wife languished, brain-dead from a stroke. His wife's death freed them to marry, yet their relationship, which flourished while it was illicit, has become problematic, and Lottie has welcomed the opportunity to work on her mother's house.

Cameron, the part-owner of a Boston bookstore, has remained a bachelor and lives a Bohemian life in a South Boston loft. Elizabeth, in flight from her husband's affairs, has returned to her mother's house with her young children, and under Lottie's watchful gaze, she and Cameron rekindle their former passion.

Thus are established the contrasts and incongruities between romantic and conjugal love that define this book. Cameron has always elevated his love for Elizabeth and contemptuously derided his sister for settling for what she can get. Under her brother's influence, Lottie finds herself idealizing Cameron's passion, even as she suffers from her age-old resentment of Elizabeth.

While her phone conversations with Jack are distant and estranged, she cannot resist fantasies in which she and Jack replace Cameron and Elizabeth in love scenes that Elizabeth has described to her in indiscreet confidences. "Lottie was used to giving herself permission to have fantasies -- perhaps most women who have lived alone for long periods of time are. . . . So now she made no effort to stop herself either, without thinking about the damage she might be doing to what was, after all, her very real love."

Lottie's maternal love for Ryan -- its stable presence in her life and its changing dynamic -- provides a counterpoint to her romantic attachments. Ms. Miller's resonant depiction of this relationship deepens and complicates the novel:

"What [Lottie] had felt in recent years, though, particularly since Ryan had gone off to college, was how absolute the ending to that mother-child romance was. . . . Not that she loved him less. . . . But that the kind of love was different. Less

consuming. . . . Sometimes she dreamed of him as he was at three, or six; and woke with a mixture of gratitude and bottomless sorrow, the same feeling she had when she dreamed of one of the few close friends she'd had who'd died."

Ms. Miller orchestrates a drama of altering awarenesses. She refracts and refines her characters through their perceptions of themselves and each other. A tragic accident sets in motion the events that lead Lottie to recognize the justice of Jack's point of view and to accept the responsibilities and privileges of their life together.

She comes to realize that Cameron has deluded himself, and that she and Cameron are more alike than she has supposed. "What Lottie has a confused sense of as she weeps is that she needs to leave behind a part of her own life, a part that loves the dark, that always chooses what's temporary, what's thrillingly marginal -- the hotel, the car, the secret meeting -- and try instead to try to build something permanent out of the quotidian, out of daily life. Out of everything that's most fragile and mortal and corruptible."

The subtle moral sensibility that made "The Good Mother" and "Family Pictures" so meaningful is again evident in "For Love." Ms. Miller writes with wisdom, compassion and an almost palpable sense of reality about the ambiguous and difficult choices that, at one time or another, life demands of us.

Ms. Whitehouse is a writer living in New York.

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