Melodrama on the Meaning of Love

DURING the early years of her writing career, Sue Miller was often dismissed as a writer of lesser-quality, popular fiction. Now she is being praised as an incisive chronicler of the American family.

Miller, who writes about the intricacies of contemporary relationships, has never shied away from sensitive issues.

Her first novel, "The Good Mother," dealt with a mother's custody battle for her daughter and was made into a movie.

"Family Pictures," Miller's second novel, told the story of a large family working to accommodate an autistic son. It became a prime-time television miniseries. Hollywood's interest in Miller's writing seems to have given her credibility with the critics.

Her third novel, "For Love," is being lauded as a skillful and serious exploration of the life of the modern family. The novel tracks the emotional ups and downs of baby boomer Lottie Gardner in her roles as mother, sister, daughter, wife, and friend.

Lottie has returned one summer to her hometown of Cambridge, Mass., to pack up her widowed mother's house after she has moved into a nursing home. Lottie's 20-year-old son comes along to lend a hand.

A freelance writer in her mid-40s, Lottie is in her first year of a troubled second marriage. She has returned to her old neighborhood in order to escape from the present but ends up running headlong into her past.

Her childhood neighbor Elizabeth also has returned home for the summer. Elizabeth, too, is escaping a troubled marriage. Lottie's brother, Cameron, was a high-school sweetheart of Elizabeth's, and they spend the summer rekindling their romance.

This is a modern love story carrying all the complexity of today's step-families, affairs, multiple marriages, and separations. The book often reads like the plot of a soap opera.

Yet Miller is a strong writer with an eye for detail and a gift for evocative dialogue. She draws readers in through detailed descriptions and carefully crafted characters.

Miller has a facility for you-are-there scene-setting. Take, for example, this picture of a shared lunch between Lottie and her son, Ryan, during a break from their work on the house.

"Lottie sets the bag, the seltzer and glasses, on the stoop and steps back up into the kitchen's sudden dark to get salt and pepper and a sharp knife. When she opens the screen door again, Ryan is just sitting down, opening the bag. Lottie lowers herself next to him on the stoop. Her knees creak audibly. `Want to go halvesies?' she asks."

Although the writing is strong, the structure of the novel fails to hold together. It loses much of its impetus through a prologue describing the tragic accident around which the book centers. Once the outcome is revealed, it's difficult patiently to read through pages of buildup to the event.

As she did in her previous novels, Miller has written a book with great emotional punch. "For Love" probes the meaning of 20th-century love and speaks frankly. But unlike Miller's other books, "For Love" takes on a tone of melodrama.

Lottie is searching for the meaning of love. She is doing research for a magazine article on the subject, and while out for a jog finds herself staring into other people's windows.

"She's like some creature from outer space, she thinks. Some Martian, reading her books, staring in through windows, trying to figure out what it means to be human. What is this thing, called love?"

For those in search of light summer reading, "For Love" may be tempting. But if you don't want to wallow in the wreckage of modern relationships, think twice before choosing this one.

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