Monday, May 24, 2010

Rant or Rave: The World Below

This is a Rant or Rave that I am surprised to be writing. Sue Miller is not "my kinda author". Frankly, though I had heard her name on a few occasions at the library, I really didn't know who she was, nor what kinds of books she wrote. It is sometimes difficult to break me out of my norms of historical fiction, classics, science fiction & fantasy and non-fiction. Certainly, if I was consciously to step outside those norms, I doubt Sue Miller would've even been on my list of potential authors to explore. Certainly, she would not have been near the top of that list.

Funny thing happened on the way to forum-- I heard Sue Miller speak at the Milwaukee Public Library Spring Literary Luncheon. More, I heard her read from her latest book, The Lakeshore Express. And I was impressed and engaged. Far more so than I expected. She was quite charming and interesting, and her book was good. Very good, actually.

So, upon returning to the Mukwonago Community Library, I checked to see if we had any of Ms. Miller's works on audiobook. And, lo and behold, we had The World Below on CD. And, lo and behold, it was good. Really, really good.

Oh, there are bits and pieces that don't quite fit, especially at the beginning, and there are a few places where the narrator describes events from the past in a level of detail and specificity far beyond what she could actually know about those events. But these are minor quibbles. The World Below references the human ability, skill and foible both, to present one version of yourself to the world, while maintaining a quite different perspective and history hidden below the surface. Known only to a few, and visible to others only at rare moments when circumstances are just right.

It resonated strongly with me, perhaps because from time to time, I find myself wondering what if? What if I had gone to prom with someone else? What if I had pursued a different course of study in college? What if I hadn't grown up in the country? What if, what if, what if? The World Below echoes those What Ifs, explores the ways we justify things in our past. Paper over some of the hurts and what ifs that didn't go at all the way we expected them to. It is a rich, deep look into human nature, particularly into the worlds we all create-- one on the surface, and one (maybe more) below.

The World Below is not an easy book. It twines together the life stories of several generations of one family, and following who is where is why is when can be challenging. But it is most definitely worth investing the necessary time and energy to fully appreciate. As an added bonus, it also does have a historical fiction section, as Miller's descriptions of Georgia Rice's stay in a Maine tuberculosis sanitarium added much to my understanding of what it must have been like to have TB in the early 20th century. I know of diseases like TB and polio, of course, but in a hypothetical "gee, that sounds bad" sort of way, rather than through any personal experience. Miller vividly transforms that theoretical understanding into something much more profound and personal with her elegant narrative.

It is a fine, fine book. Once I return from my current jaunt back into the classics (Great Expectations), I will give The Lakeshore Limited a read to see if it is as good, or better. Anyone else have any feedback on Sue Miller's work?

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