Sue Miller: Lost in the Forest
Miller dives into her usual territory – marital infidelity, the role of the woman in a marriage and dependency between men and women. Mark and Eva had been married. It had not been easy as they were not well off. Mark had dropped out of college and, after trying various jobs, had worked managing vineyards in California. Meanwhile, Eva had given birth to two daughters – Emily and Daisy. But like many women she had found being a full-time mother trying and had released her anger on Mark. He had resorted to an affair with Amy, a woman who was a waitress in a local bar. Eva had found out and they had split up. She had eventually met a local publisher – John. They dated, married and had a son, Theo. John had set her up in a local book shop. Mark, meanwhile, had dated but not settled down but his business had been successful and he was now comfortably off. Both of them had settled into a comfortable role, with Mark trying to be a good father. This is the situation at the beginning of the novel.
The novel starts with the death of John. He is hit by a car while out walking with Eva and Theo and killed almost instantly. The novel tells how John’s death affects various people – Mark, Eva, Emily, Daisy and Theo, in particular. Eva is, of course, devastated and has to deal not just with her own grief but the grief of her children. The one most affected is Daisy. Though he was not her biological father, she had, almost without being aware of it, become very attached to him. Indeed, much of the story is about her. The title refers to a collective story the family tells first Theo (as a child) and then Emily’s child at the end of the book. But it also clearly refers to Daisy who is lost in the forest of her emotions and her growing-up. She becomes sullen and non-communicative. She also misbehaves, stealing money from her mother’s book shop, though she has no need for the money. Most importantly, she starts a highly inappropriate relationship. We see this not only from the perspective of her parents and siblings but also from her own perspective both at the time and in the future, as she tells a psychiatrist, as an adult, what she felt and why she behaved as she did. Her relationship with her mother, with her father and, to a lesser extent, with her two siblings are paramount to the book and all four struggle with it.
However, it is not all about Daisy. Emily is not a very well-drawn character and if there is a weakness to this book it is the character of Emily We learn that in some respects that she is too good to be true – better-looking than her sister and more intellectual. But we learn little about her real feelings, except when she is acting as a foil to her mother or her sister. Theo, however, though only three for much of the book does have a more distinctive personality. Apart from Daisy, the second main plot strand is Mark and Eva. Will they or won’t they get back together, now that John is dead? Miller plays this theme out to the hilt, with toing and froing and leaving us guessing to the end. Of course, it all helps to show their complex relationship and lets us decide whether such a couple are better off being friends or being a couple.
Love is not easy and certainly is not easy in Miller’s novel. Daisy, Eva and Mark all find that and even Emily does to a certain extent. The other main character, Gracie, Eva’s best friend, also finds that, too, though she takes a pragmatic view of the situation. Miller cleverly leaves it to us to decide whether such a pragmatic approach is the best or not. The answer, presumably, is that it depends on who you are and where you are in your life. It is a fine novel about love and its tribulations and about relationships between the sexes and between parents and children and Miller keeps us enthralled throughout with her fine writing.
First published 2005 by Vintage