Thursday, November 09, 2006

She Finally Gets to the Heart of It

I just finished reading Sue Miller's Lost In The Forest. While I wasn't really satisfied with how it ended, I found it a very interesting read. I have read several other Miller novels, The Good Mother, While I Was Gone, and The World Below, and enjoyed them all. What emerges when you think of her writing is the theme of something broken, or dysfunctional in the upbringing of a daughter, the result of which is sometimes disastrous, but the cause often invisible. I find that very interesting, indeed.

In Lost In The Forest the reader follows the development of the central character, Daisy, from 3 different viewpoints--her mother's, her father's and her own. Her near ruination, as well as her rescue. When the book ends, the reader is left with the sense that Daisy has entered adulthood a little bloodied, but definitely not bowed. That she and her family are putting the work in to make it so. This is somewhat unique for Sue Miller novels. The author normally relies more on flashbacks to show why the central female character is who she is--and that who is usually quite damaged. And there is usually no parental admission of fault. That there is in this novel, I find very refreshing.

Another interesting aspect to Sue Miller's female characters is how they use sex. They are both victimized and empowered by it. Daisy, in Lost, is exposed sex on several levels, though she doesn't really understand that until later in life. Her parents who divorced, her mother's remarriage, her older sister's experience. When her stepfather, John, dies, 14 year old Daisy is a bewildered gangly adolescent. John was the only person who really spoke to her. Wanted to know her opinions, completely and without judgment. He paid attention to her Daisy-ness. Daisy is bereft. No one is able to comfort her. Her mother is lost in her own grief, her father is emotionally unavailable. She and her sister have grown apart. Daisy is seen as difficult. Sullen. Distant. She acts out in insidious ways--stealing money from her mother's store. As she gets deeper into her adolescence, she hates her too tall body. Shaves her pubic hair. And finally, enters into an illicit affair with a much older man.

When she is caught stealing from her mother by Duncan, the 53 year old husband of her mother's best friend, he holds it over her for a long time. They engage in a sexual affair, which is never consummated per se, but that is a very powerful experience for Daisy. It is sexual abuse for sure, but in Daisy's mind, she holds the power. She is using Duncan to explore her sexual identity and its power, not yet understanding how it will affect her overall sexual development. He has no emotional attachment to her. She needs to know what she is to him, and he cannot or will not give her that.

I think what I find most interesting or disturbing is that Daisy is unable to express herself in any way other than sexually. She does write. But that is very private. She doesn't participate in her after school activities in order to go with Duncan to explore the world he opened up for her. A world in which nothing is really asked of her. All she has to do is take--and she is a very needy young woman. It isn't until Daisy's father overhears a very sexual conversation between Daisy and Duncan that affair is forcibly broken off. Her father steps in and actually does the fathering. Not particularly well, but I don't think Daisy needed it to be done well, just needed him to do it. To make her accountable. She needed a FATHER. Much is made of that, and rightfully so. A young woman feeling unvalued by her father will seek value in very bad places. Daisy needed her father give her to to know what she sought from Duncan--What am I to you? What do I mean to you?

I admire Sue Miller's ability to time and again come to this theme and develop it. It isn't easy reading, and it surely cannot be easy writing. To read or write these books is a continual poking at something that hurts, that you need to explore, to exorcise. My sister-in-law, in particular, criticizes Miller's women as weak--especially in The Good Mother. And to some extent, she is right. But they are not bad women. They have had some really difficult experiences that brought them to where they are, and to where they commit very damning sins. What I find compelling is how these women were failed, how they fail, and how they get back up and go on. This is not a sad read for me. I take from it the moving on. The work and courage in facing yourself and your background, and picking yourself up, trying again. It's the getting up. Gets me every time.



Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
eastcoastdweller said...

Good books are rarely "easy reading." Sounds like You found some good ones.

I know a good book because when I finally slam it shut after burning my eyes out reading it non-stop, my whole worldview has changed.