The drama of marriage
Embedded in Sue Miller's new novel, The World Below, is the drama of a marriage founded on misconceptions and faulty assumptions. Reading the tersely written diaries left behind by her grandmother, Catherine Hubbard (a grown woman now trying to sort out her own relationship questions) eventually formulates a more complicated version of her grandparents' lives together than the simple, idyllic one she remembers from her childhood. After her grandmother's death, Catherine journeys from San Francisco to her grandparents' house in Vermont to see if she wants to sell the place or make a new life for herself in the old house. Her arrival displaces the current tenant, Samuel Eliasson, a retired academic she soon feels drawn to. Sam offers to take Catherine out in a boat on Quabbin Reservoir. She has a magical childhood memory of being in a boat with her grandfather and seeing the wavering forms of buildings under the lake's fluid surface, but Sam tells her she is mistaken; there are no buildings or other marvelous images under the water.
Sue Miller, the best-selling author of The Good Mother and the Oprah Book Club selection While I Was Gone, constructs the title, The World Below, to work on many levels. Not only does it refer to the submerged town in Catherine's memory, but it suggests other dream worlds below the surface our imaginations, our subconscious, our flights of fantasy worlds that sometimes remain separate, but occasionally surface, forcing us to reconcile them with reality. As Miller's protagonist finds out, sometimes it is a struggle to reconcile preconceived notions or dreams with actual facts, but doing so makes it possible to glean some measure of the truth. Like the flickering images of the submerged buildings in Catherine's memory, Miller craftily alternates between bringing Catherine's story and the grandmother's story to the surface and into focus. The technique throws the past into sharp relief: we see the grandmother as an independent young girl, as a confused young woman sent to a sanatorium, as a young lover and as a married woman with secrets close to her heart. Catherine's extrapolations from her grandmother's brief diary entries, combined with her memories of her, allow us to see beyond the surface of the older woman's life and gaze, fascinated, into The World Below.
Linda Stankard is a writer in Cookeville, Tennessee.