- The Washington Times - Saturday, April 2, 2005

LOST IN THE FOREST

By Sue Miller

Knopf, $32.95, 256 pages

REVIEWED BY DEBRA BRUNO

Daisy pilfers small bills from the cash register of her mother’s bookstore.

Why? No rational reason, except that she’s 14 years old, the stepfather she adored has just died, and she’s lost.

What happens as a result of her theft — and how the family limps along in the wake of a loss so profound that each member of the family is blind to everyone else — is the heartbreaking story in Sue Mille’s new novel, “Lost in the Forest.”

This is a wonderful, poignant book by Miller, author of “The Good Mother” and “While I Was Gone.” There are so many things the authorr gets right, starting with the emotional states. She gets in the head of a confused and vulnerable teenaged girl. She draws a vivid portrait of a widow sunk in grief. She ruthlessly observes the meanderings of a middle-aged man who stumbles through life and hasn’t a clue about how to find his place.

He’s a classic clueless guy, charming and handsome but infuriating at the same time.

More than anything else, “Lost in the Forest” is an exploration of grief, of the loss caused by infidelity and of the even larger betrayal of death. Eva, a woman who is twice battered by love — once by her first husband’s fidelity, and once by her second husband’s horrible death — struggles along through grief so vivid and wrenching you can almost hear her sobbing in the next room.

Little Theo watches his father’s body fly through the air when he is struck by a car and later proclaims that his father has become an “angel” flying to heaven.

But it is Daisy who seems the most permanently damaged by the loss of this gentle stepfather who took the time to ask her questions and listen to her answers, who understood how hard it was to be the younger sister of a beautiful and accomplished first child, and who accepted her in all her tall, gangly awkwardness. Her loss, and the almost complete absence of any adult in her life to help her work her way through the pain, leads her to turn to other forms of attention.

The story of Daisy’s sexual awakening — a story Miller has told before in other books, in other variations of the same old story — is one of the most simultaneously sensual and disturbing parts of the story. How can Miller do this: convince us that it sometimes happens this way and that it’s not so uniformly bad? Daisy is part Lolita and part child. Her seduction, though horrifying on one level, also shows us her blossoming as a sexual being. More of a flowering than a deflowering, really.

The actual story of Daisy’s seduction takes on a feeling of inevitability.

This is not the same thing as predictability, which in some bad novels (“The Kite Runner” comes to mind) means that there is only one course of events that could possibly transpire. In these stories, the reader feels pulled and manipulated by cheap, soap opera tactics and transparent plot lines.

Inevitability is far more interesting and complex — you see that poor Daisy is about to be pulled into a far different world, but you don’t know precisely how it’s going to happen. At this point in the book, I had to set it aside for a few hours until I felt prepared to face the scene as it unfolded.

The book raises the obvious question: when is a sexual relationship healthy?

Is it when the two people involved are unequal in some way, in age or wealth or experience? Is a secret relationship unhealthy? If an older man is always on the giving end and apparently gets no immediate sexual satisfaction, does that then even things out? Did Duncan, the older man, create a monster here, in which Daisy would forever have trouble in knowing the rules for future relationships? After all, at least someone was paying attention to her.

Eventually, Daisy’s father Mark wakes up just enough to see that his sweet, vulnerable daughter needs a rescue. It is one of the few times in his life when an instinct of Mark’s proved right, and his insisting that Daisy live with him for a few years probably salvages the rest of her adolescence. Sue Miller understands that, for most of us, the requirements of being a parent and the requirements of simply living life and making sense of our time here can often clash. John, the only adult in the story who seems fullycapable of being a conscious parent and a fully living adult at the same time, is killed off right at the start of the book.

John and Eva had started a family tradition of a round-robin storytelling game at the dinner table. The idea, mainly, was to keep young Theo entertained and at his seat long enough to eat dinner. One person started the story, and then passed it off at an important juncture to the next person, who picked up the story line and passed it on again.

Later, ex-husband Mark visits for dinner, and the tradition begins again.

The problem, of course, is that Mark doesn’t know the tradition at all, and every other family member, especially Eva and Daisy, are walloped with the memory of what they’ve lost. Eva unthinkingly starts the story with a small boy lost in the forest. She almost doesn’t realize what she’s opened up, and the story line becomes a Rorschach test that digs deeply and painfully into the family’s suffering.

Eldest daughter Emily describes the boy: “He knew he had to be brave, because he was all by himself, and no one else could rescue him.” Emily passes the story on to Daisy. At first, Daisy is almost too pained to continue, but then she conjures up a beautiful white horse to lead the boy out of the forest. She passes the story on to Mark. There is a long pause. Mark falters. Finally, though, Mark decides that the horse leads the boy to town and then disappears. Everyone in the family sighs with relief, even though they can’t help but remember that Mark is not John. And, even though the obvious symbolism of a white horse rescuing a boy lost in the forest is almost trite, it works somehow, too. Sue Miller knows this: that we all muddle along; we all try to do our best. And what we’d really, really love sometimes is for that beautiful white horse to whinny and lead us to safety when we’re totally lost.

Debra Bruno is special reports editor at Legal Times.

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