- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 7, 2001

By Sue Miller
Alfred A. Knopf, $25, 275 pages

After some 20 years in San Francisco, with two divorces under her belt and three grown children Catherine Hubbard feels restless, ready for a change. So when she learns that her grandparents' house in Vermont is now hers, Cath (as everyone calls her) welcomes the legacy as a kind of answer to her middle-aged angst and a chance to return to her roots. She takes a half-year sabbatical from her teaching job and moves east to the house where, growing up, she felt most at home.
As Cath's relaxed new life unfolds in Vermont, she feels she's living her dead grandmother Georgia's life too, "running steady as a buried stream under mine." In the attic, in a locked trunk, she discovers papers, bills, bundles of letters, exquisite hand-stitched underwear and nightgowns and her dead grandmother's diaries, tied together with ribbon. Through the letters and diaries Cath gains new insight into her family's history, finding parallels between her own life and Georgia's and some striking differences.
"She was a woman who had grown up in another time another universe, really," Cath reflects. "Understanding who she was and what she was to me depended on understanding that unfamiliar universe too. And then of course there was the mystery … of my mother, of her illness, which I'd spent my life worrying at the meaning of."
When Cath was 15, her mother Georgia's daughter committed suicide and Cath went to live with her grandparents, where she spent some of the happiest years of her life. Georgia's mother too, had died when she was about the same age, forcing her to be a caretaker to her two younger siblings. It was a role that offered her some compensation; energetic and a tad bossy, she enjoyed being in charge. And, as her father's competent helpmeet, she achieved an independence unusual for a young woman in the early-20th century.
Cath is already familiar with this bare outline of Georgia's life, but through the diaries comes to know much more about the time, just before her marriage, when her grandmother spent six months in a sanitarium. Georgia had been sent there after being diagnosed at 19 with tuberculosis a diagnosis made by the family doctor, John Holbrooke, the man who eventually would become her husband and Cath's grandfather.
Georgia, who had never been away from home before, at first found the atmosphere of the sanitarium stifling, but soon came to see it as a world apart, with its own freedoms. The author has said that she chose to have her heroine succumb to TB because the disease had such a range of implications at that time: "it was newly being understood as infectious, and therefore as 'dirty'; perhaps a little the way AIDS is now … and because having it could put you in a quite unique subculture, where the rules were different and the feeling of isolation was intense."
Georgia soon attracts and is attracted by an intense young man who is dying of the disease, and in the oddly permissive atmosphere of the sanitarium, they become lovers. Their trysts take place in a garden shed, "on the narrow cot kept there for the gardener to nap on." (This convenient prop stopped me cold. Gardeners, then and now, dig and plant, cut grass, trim bushes and occasionally lean on their shovels or stop for a drink of water. But they surely don't nap on cots expressly provided for that purpose.)
Aside from this almost comical lapse, the author demonstrates a fine eye for telling details. In the attic, Cath finds "one of those fox stoles elegant women like my grandmother wore in the forties and fifties, the fox's head still attached, the lower jaw fixed with strings. To keep the stole in place, you arranged it so the fox, who in this case was slightly cross-eyed, bit his own tail."
The most resonant image is her description of an underwater town, the "world below" of the title. Deliberately submerged years before when a dam was built, the town "gone forever but still visible, still imaginable," is a recurring metaphor for the hidden lives of Cath's grandparents.
Sue Miller's novels often focus on domestic crisis: an agonizing child custody battle in "The Good Mother," a household pulled apart by the strain of caring for an autistic child in "Family Pictures," a woman coping with her past as the child of an alcoholic mother in "For Love," a busy vet-wife-mother whose past comes back to haunt her in "While I Was Gone."
"The World Below" has its family crisis too, but it occurs towards the end of the novel when Cath's daughter, Karen, delivers a premature baby, a baby so tiny her survival seems in doubt. Cath is drawn back to the West Coast to help out, but this geographical switch has the effect of muting what's gone before: the skilful interweaving of Cath's present efforts to find herself, and her obsession with her grandparents' past.
A number of contemporary subsidiary characters Cath's scattered family, the few friends she makes in Vermont populate the novel, but the living pale besides the deceased John and Georgia Holbrooke, who are fully drawn in all their complexity. The author is particularly astute in revealing the true nature of John Holbrooke, a courtly, book loving man whose mistaken attempt to control Georgia's life at a crucial stage in her development could have ruined them both. It doesn't. He rises above it. Georgia forgives him and they rebuild from there. And years later, after unearthing the whole story, Cath forgives him too.
The author tells the story chiefly from Cath's perspective, shifting occasionally into the third person to get inside the head of John Holbrooke who didn't leave a diary or confide his innermost thoughts to Cath when he was alive. It doesn't quite work because the reader is uncomfortably aware of the shift in viewpoint. But this is merely a technical quibble. Sue Miller once again proves herself one of America's finest fictional chroniclers of family life.

Lorna Williams is a Washington writer.

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