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BOOK REVIEW : Braiding Strands of Life's Connections : FOR LOVE By Sue Miller ; HarperCollins;$23; 301 pages

April 02, 1993|ELAINE KENDALL | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Sue Miller is an anatomist of love in all its guises, exploring the myriad emotional connections between husbands and wives, parents and children, siblings and friends.

*

In her third novel, the scope and depth of her concern is broader and deeper than in "The Good Mother" or "Family Pictures": a logical artistic progression from the particular to the general.

Holding the multiple strands of this subtly braided novel is Lottie Reed, visiting her hometown of Cambridge, Mass., on a sad, ordinary midlife errand. Her mother, a victim of Alzheimer's disease, is in a nursing home, and the shabby little house in which Lottie and her brother Cameron grew up must be prepared for sale. Lottie has been living in the Midwest, recently married for a second time to the physician who had been her lover during his wife's illness.

During the trying years of clandestine meetings and stolen moments, Lottie had longed for stability and permanence, but now that she has it she's curiously uneasy.

The visit to Cambridge is welcome. Troubled by problems with her stepchildren and stifled by the constraints of her new life, Lottie thinks of the trip as a chance to sort out her ambivalent feelings.

Though the words have remained unspoken, this journey is in fact a trial separation. She's reluctant to admit, even to herself, that the affair was far more satisfying than the actual marriage--the plotting, the deviousness, even the attendant guilt contributed to an excitement that has since dulled into routine.

She's hardly unpacked before her childhood friend Elizabeth appears, confident and demanding as ever, reminding Lottie of the painful contrast between Elizabeth's golden girlhood and her own anomalous position on the fringes.

Though Lottie has become a successful writer, she is still intensely aware that she is the daughter of a convicted embezzler and an alcoholic, while Elizabeth was the well-loved child of an eminent professor.

Though the two women have long since lost touch, Elizabeth behaves as if they are still the best of friends, confiding that she too is on a holiday from her marriage to a chronic philanderer. She, however, is considerably more comfortable: She's back in the family house with her young children and an au pair; bored and restless, she's weighing the pros and cons of divorce.

Lottie would prefer to keep Elizabeth at arm's length, but a tragedy that brings Lottie's brother into the plot thrusts the women together. Having already begun to sound the depths of friendship, marriage and mother-daughter relations, the author quickly immerses us in the mysteries of sibling affection and loyalty.

In addition, Lottie's son Ryan has returned from a student year abroad to help her with a house project, providing an opportunity to study the intricate, constantly shifting relationship between a woman and her adult son.

Miller not only succeeds in keeping all these relationships in balance but manages to create a narrative structure that moves them briskly toward uncontrived solutions, a feat of unusual dexterity and compassion.

Each of her characters is complete and distinctive, a compendium of lovable and exasperating traits. This is an ensemble piece in which no one usurps center stage, but each character has a turn at capturing our full attention.

"For Love" may sound like a romantic novel, but don't be misled. Sue Miller has far more on her mind.

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