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On Sale: November 06, 2001
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Synopsis

From the author of While I Was Gone, a stunning new novel that showcases Sue Miller's singular gift for exposing the nerves that lie hidden in marriages and families, and the hopes and regrets that lie buried in the hearts of women.

Maine, 1919. Georgia Rice, who has cared for her father and two siblings since her mother's death, is diagnosed, at nineteen, with tuberculosis and sent away to a sanitarium. Freed from the burdens of caretaking, she discovers a nearly lost world of youth and possibility, and meets the doomed young man who will become her lover.

Vermont, the present. On the heels of a divorce, Catherine Hubbard, Georgia's granddaughter, takes up residence in Georgia's old house. Sorting through her own affairs, Cath stumbles upon the true story of Georgia's life and marriage, and of the misunderstanding upon which she built a lasting love.

With the tales of these two women--one a country doctor's wife with a haunting past, the other a twice-divorced San Francisco schoolteacher casting about at midlife for answers to her future--Miller offers us a novel of astonishing richness and emotional depth. Linked by bitter disappointments, compromise, and powerful grace, the lives of Georgia and Cath begin to seem remarkably similar, despite their distinctly different times: two young girls, generations apart, motherless at nearly the same age, thrust into early adulthood, struggling with confusing bonds of attachment and guilt; both of them in marriages that are not what they seem, forced to make choices that call into question the very nature of intimacy, faithfulness, betrayal, and love. Marvelously written, expertly told, The World Below captures the shadowy half-truths of the visible world, and the beauty and sorrow submerged beneath the surfaces of our lives--the lost world of the past, our lost hopes for the future. A tour de force from one of our most beloved storytellers.


From the Hardcover edition.

Excerpt

One

Imagine it: a dry, cool day, the high-piled cumulus clouds moving slowly from northwest to southeast in the sky, their shadows following them across the hay fields yet to be cut for the last time this year. Down a narrow dirt road between the fields, a horse-drawn carriage, two old people wearing their worn Sunday clothes seated side by side in it, driving to town for their grown daughter's funeral. Neither of them spoke, though you could see, if you cared to look, that the old woman's lips were moving ceaselessly, silently repeating the same few phrases over and over. It was her intention, formed over the long weeks her daughter lay dying, to rescue her grandchildren from their situation, from their motherless house. To take all three of them back to the farm with her. She was rehearsing what she'd say, though she wasn't aware of her mouth forming the words, and her husband didn't notice.

Imagine this too: later in the afternoon of the same long day, the two older grandchildren, the girls, laughing together. Laughing cruelly at the old woman, their grandmother, for her misguided idea.

But perhaps it wasn't truly cruel. They were children, after all. As thoughtless as children usually are. What's more, they'd spent a good part of this strange day, the day of their mother's burial, laughing. Laughing nervously, perhaps with even a touch of hysteria, mostly because they didn't know what they ought to feel or think. Laughter was the easiest course. It was their way to ward off all the dark feelings waiting for them.

They'd been up before dawn, long before their father and little brother were awake, long before their grandparents started in to town, almost giddy with the number and variety of their chores. The meal after the church service was to be elaborate--deviled eggs, ham, scalloped potatoes, rolls, three kinds of jellied salad, pudding, and butter cookies--and they each had a list of things to do connected with it. They worked in the kitchen in their nightgowns, barefoot, as the soft gray light slowly filled the room. When the housekeeper, Mrs. Beston, arrived, she chased them upstairs to get dressed.

They had ironed their own dresses the day before because Mrs. Beston was so busy. They hung now on hangers from the hook behind their bedroom door, smelling of starch, smelling just slightly still of the heat of the iron--that sweet, scorchy odor. As they pulled them on over their heads and then helped each other plait their long braids, they were convulsed, again and again, by lurches of laughter that felt as uncontrollable as sneezing. Sometimes it was wild, almost mean. It fed on itself. Just looking at each other, or at their sleepy little brother, Freddie, who'd come in in his nightshirt, his hair poking up strangely, to sit on their bed and watch them, could set it off.

Maybe this explained it then--why, later in the day, when their father told them of their grandmother's notion, they couldn't stop themselves: why they gave way again to the same ragged hysteria. They laughed at her. They laughed at her and their grandfather's having clopped into town with horse and buggy; their father had had a motorcar forever, it seemed to them (it had been seven years). They laughed because she had only eight teeth left in her head and therefore smiled with her hand lifted to cover her mouth--they could both imitate this awkward, apologetic gesture perfectly. They laughed because she wore a ridiculous straw hat shaped like a soggy pancake, and an old-fashioned dress, the same old-fashioned dress she wore to all ceremonial events. They laughed because she had thought their father would so easily give them away.

"They are still children," is what the old woman said to her son-in-law. "They need a childhood." The two of them had gone together into the parlor after they greeted each other, and when she told him it was private, what she had to say to him, he shut the sliding pocket doors. It had been such a long time since anyone had pulled them out that a thick gray stripe of dust evenly furred all their decorative molding.

They sat not really looking at each other, the new widower and the dead woman's mother, and the grandmother forced herself to keep talking, to try to explain her plan to him. She wasn't a good talker, even in the easiest circumstances, and none of this was easy, of course. She hadn't imagined very much beyond her first statement ahead of time either. It was really her entire argument.

What's more, her son-in-law had always made her shy. He was a large, almost handsome man with slicked-down hair, getting burly now as he approached forty-five. He was a salesman, of vulcanized rubber goods, and his way of dealing with the world came directly from that life: he wanted to amuse you, to charm you. When he was courting her daughter--Fanny, her name was--he had flirted with the grandmother, and this had made her tongue-tied and silent around him. Once, after she'd served him a blueberry cake he found especially delicious, he'd grabbed her and waltzed her around the scrubbed wooden floors of her farmhouse kitchen. This had so unnerved her--his energy and strength, and her helplessness against them--that she'd burst into shameful tears.

That's what she felt like doing now, weeping, she was making such a mess of getting this said. It had seemed so clear to her as she moved through her solitary days while her daughter was dying and then since. The children needed her. They couldn't be left alone through the week any longer. The girls couldn't be asked to be so responsible--taking care of themselves and then their little brother too. It was too much. It was simply too much. They needed a home: someone to take care of them. She would offer to bring them to town on Fridays to be with him for the weekend. Or he could come out and stay with them on the farm. Oh, they'd be happy to have him!

All this planning had kept the image of her daughter--wasted, curled on her side, rising to consciousness only to cry out in pain--from her mind; though she'd spoken to Fanny often, another version of Fanny, as she'd made her preparations: as she'd shaken out the extra bedding, as she'd set out the framed pictures of her in the unused rooms she'd made up for the children. "Oh my dear girl," she had whispered. "They will be fine, you'll see. They just need someone to tend to them for a change, that's all, and I am the one to do it."

Her son-in-law waited a moment now, out of kindness and sorrow, before he answered. Then he cleared his throat and said that he saw things somewhat differently. His older daughter was almost sixteen, the younger thirteen--not really children at all. They were big, good girls. He needed their help, he said.

Of course, this was exactly her point. She didn't press it, though. She sat silently and nodded, just once, furious at herself. She was giving up. This easily.

And they were, he continued gently (very gently: he was fond of his mother-in-law, this cadaverously skinny and stern old woman), his children, after all.

She stood up and turned away from him, but not before he saw her mouth pull down, grim and defeated.

It had taken Fanny several years to die, of cancer, though no one had ever spoken the word in the house or in front of the children. And the truth was, as the grandmother would have admitted if she weren't wild with a grief that turned in like self-blame, that Fanny had been so unusual a young and then a nearly middle-aged woman that the girls had been in charge of the household long before anyone had guessed she was ill. So much for needing a childhood.

The girls were named Georgia and Ada. Georgia, the older, could remember even in the years when her mother was well, coming home from school for lunch, a privilege of the town children, to find the house silent, Fanny still in her housecoat, lying on the sofa in the parlor reading, just as she had been when Georgia left. She'd look up, surprised and dizzy. Her face was round and full, with fat, childish lips and a baby's startled blue eyes: a pretty, oddly unformed-looking young woman. "Why, Georgia," she'd say, day after day. "How can you be back so soon?" And then she'd rise and ineffectually pat at her hair or her robe. Often she was barefoot, even in winter. "Well, we'd better go see what we can scratch up for you girls to eat, hadn't we?"

It was a disgrace, really, though the children didn't care; they'd gotten used to it long before. In the kitchen, the breakfast dishes were still on the table, the grease congealed, the skin of the syrup pools lightly puckering with the unseen motion of the air. Upstairs, the beds would gape, unmade. When the baby, Freddie, came, Georgia's first task at noon would often be to take him up to the nursery to change his drooping diaper. "Oh, you pooper," she would say. "You big flop maker. Look what you've done now, you wicked boy." She would keep a steady stream of this insulting talk flowing, so that he would lie still in fascination and amusement and make her job easier, but also so that she wouldn't gag--she never got used to the piercing scent of ammonia, and worse, that she released each time she unpinned his sagging, weighted cloths.

It was a little while after Freddie came--Georgia later thought it must have been then that her mother had first become ill--that they began to have regular help, finally. Mrs. Beston. Her name was Ellen, but no one ever called her that, not even their mother. Mrs. Beston, always and only, though their father sometimes called her Mrs. Best One when she wasn't around to hear it. She was tall and raw-boned and strong. Entirely without humor, and yet endlessly, bottomlessly cheerful. She arrived Monday mornings, just as their father was leaving for the week. "You must take these children in hand, Mrs. Beston," he'd say, pulling on his coat. "They're spoiled rotten. A daily whipping, I should think, and gruel for supper four nights a week at the minimum." The children, sitting on the stairs waiting to say goodbye, would look at each other with wicked grins.

"Oh, Mister, don't say that!" Mrs. Beston would cry uneasily.

"No, no, we count on you, Mrs. Beston. Lock them in their rooms. Send them to bed with no supper. Hang them up by their thumbs till they promise to obey."

"Oh now, Mr. Rice!"

"I'm off now, Mrs. Beston. By Friday, I have every confidence, you'll have instilled in them the fear of the Lord."

But she didn't. She forgave them everything. Everyone, to her, was a poor dear, most of all their mother. Mrs. Rice, the poor dear. It was only slowly that Georgia came to understand that this was more than peculiarly expressed affection, that Mrs. Beston was referring to something specific, something sad and wrong about her mother.

She was supposed to leave by three-thirty or four--she had her own family to get home to and cook for--but often she stayed after her chores were done, just to do a few pieces in the puzzle with them, just to play one more hand of Slapjack, one round of War. When she did leave, the house was clean, the laundry was done if it was laundry day, and--after their mother was really ill--there was always something prepared in the kitchen and the girls left with instructions on how to warm it and serve it. Though by then Fanny didn't have much appetite, Ada or Georgia would always take a tray to her room before they served themselves and Freddie at the kitchen table. And after dinner one of them would go to fetch the nearly untouched tray back down. Both of them were good at keeping track, both of them always knew whether she'd eaten more or less today than yesterday, though they never commented on this to each other.

But they'd all gotten skilled by this time at never acknowledging what they knew, at pretending they didn't see what they saw. Everything conspired to encourage them in this--Mrs. Beston's determined good cheer, their father's strained, sometimes desperate gaiety, their neighbors' polite silence about what was happening in their house.

And their mother: well, hadn't she always been this way? Indolent, half the time in bed anyway, reading or just daydreaming? Oh, she was sick, they certainly knew that, but they all expected--or pretended to expect, and then forgot they were pretending--that she'd be herself again by spring; or then by summer, when they'd drive over to Bucksport and have lobsters at the pound; or surely by fall, when they'd need to go shopping in Pittsfield for new school things.

Late one afternoon the summer her mother lay dying, Georgia came out onto the screened porch off the kitchen. Mrs. Beston had gone for the day, but she'd left Fanny's sheets soaking in a galvanized metal tub of cold water. The blood had colored them evenly a beautiful shade of deep sherbet pink. They looked like snow-covered mountains at sunset. Caught by surprise at the sight, Georgia stopped short and gasped. Her heart was pounding. But then quickly her mind performed its familiar, useful trick: they were having chicken stew for dinner that night, and what she told herself was that the blood was of course from the slaughter of the chicken, somehow spilled onto these cloths.

There was a world of knowledge that she had to ignore to hold on to this thought, starting with the fact that the chickens were slaughtered out behind the henhouse, but she was practiced at it, it was all accomplished in seconds. She started to whistle as loudly as she could, "Where E'er You Walk." She went outside into the overgrown yard where the lupines and lemon lilies were slowly being choked out by weeds, and began savagely to pluck them, singing now, ignoring the occasional cry of her mother, audible even through the windows she insisted stay shut.

She wanted her father, Georgia thought, yanking at the flowers. She wanted him home right now. But he was out on the road for two more days, until Friday, driving his usual circuit of general stores and hardware stores in a radius of several hundred miles. He carried samples of his wares in his motorcar, and the car had come to have that rubbery odor permanently, an odor Georgia would find reassuring even into her old age...


From the Hardcover edition.
Sue Miller|Author Q&A

About Sue Miller

Sue Miller - The World Below

Photo © Elena Seibert

Sue Miller is the best-selling author of the novels The Lake Shore Limited, The Senator’s Wife, Lost in the Forest, The World Below, While I Was Gone, The Distinguished Guest, For Love, Family Pictures, and The Good Mother; the story collection Inventing the Abbotts; and the memoir The Story of My Father. She lives in Boston.

Author Q&A

A Conversation with Sue Miller

Michelle Huneven is the author of two novels, Round Rock and Jamesland.

Sue Miller and Michelle Huneven have been friends for seventeen years.

Michelle Huneven: What was the germ for this book, the first
glimmer you had for it? Where and when did your find the
evocative title?

Sue Miller: I think the initial impulse came from some diaries I
inherited years ago from my grandmother's grandmother. They
were written in 1869 and 1870, and they document her daily life
with her husband on a farm in Maine. The entries are each only
a few sentences long, and they concern primarily the weather
and the work that got done on a given day, and who came to call,
or whom they called on. There's a kind of fascinating boredom
to the document as a whole. And then, on a day in June 1869,
there's an entry that reads:

"It has rained all day. I washed in the morning and worked on
Mrs. (illegible)'s dress in the afternoon. I am doomed to be disappointed
in everything that I take pride in. I sometimes wish I was
under the sod sleeping the sleep that knows no waking."

Nowhere else is this feeling expanded on, nowhere is the context
for this cri de coeur discussed, and the next entry is back to the
routine pattern--the waters having folded over it. I was moved
by this, by the notion of a life of deep feeling running under the
surface of this life of daily achievement and steady labor. By the
idea of an unacknowledged world living below the world of the
mundane. This was part of the germ for the book, and certainly
the source of the title.

MH: This book seems to be about losses--the loss of ancestors,
grandparents and parents, the loss of children, marriages,
ways of life, and even parts of ourselves. Cath is at a
time in her life when she can actually face her losses--isn't
that what she's doing by going back to her grandmother's old
home? Is there a value to facing losses?

SM: I think it's not clear that that is Cath's intention in going
back--her motives seem more confused than that to me--but
from the start of her visit, with her arrival at the altered house,
that's what she's dealing with. And certainly once she begins to
face the reality that Georgia's life also held such enormous loss,
she finds a kind of consolation for her own, and a way to live with
them.

MH: There is much talk of starting over in this book, and
of the idea that people can re-create or change their lives--
Georgia going to the san, Cath going to Vermont (several
times, as a child after her mother's death, after both
divorces) and to France. Do you think people really can start
over?

SM: I think there may be a few times in life, times when you're
not really formed, as in adolescence, when you can consciously
redirect it. And maybe sometimes later in times of great crisis,
when you actually learn or see something about yourself that
you hadn't known or recognized before, that access of consciousness
may make some small changes and shifts possible. But I do
think we are, largely, who we are, once we're adults. It's difficult
to do more than change certain behaviors.

MH: Do you think that divorce happens now whereas in the
past couples used to have to be more resourceful and find
ways to live together and begin again?

SM: Certainly once divorce becomes a possibility, becomes a
socially viable alternative to marriage, it undercuts the sense that
one must work things out, no matter the personal costs. And that's
no doubt both bad and good. I used to love to read the "Can This
Marriage Be Saved?" column in my mother's Ladies Home Journal
when I was a kid, and to think about the compromises recommended
to the couple in trouble--whether I could make them,
whether it seemed to me they ought to be made. And this is a
question I've asked fictionally more than once, too. The enduring
marriage is a mystery. Not always a happy mystery. But a mystery.

MH: The World Below also concerns itself with secrets--family
secrets and how they eventually surface, and also how
they're resisted. John, when he's told Georgia's secret (about
Seward), actually hears something else, something far easier
for him to assimilate. The times that Georgia tries to talk
about her experiences in the san to Cath, Cath can't draw
her out--she doesn't want to know so much about her grandmother.
And yet, you seem to say that there comes a time
when knowledge is necessary and illuminating . . . ?

SM: To take up Cath's resistance to understanding her grandmother's
story, I'd argue that she has a deep emotional stake in
wanting to see her grandparents' marriage in a certain way, as
that image of their gathering the laundry together in a storm
suggests. And it's a mark of her growth, I think, that she accepts
the complexities and compromises they've made, and is able to
imagine some of the cost to each of them in that. So, yes, pushing
through to knowledge and understanding of the emotional
truths that surround us can be important.

MH: Because I know you always have strong opinions about
your characters as you are writing them, I'm curious to know
how you felt about Cath, Georgia, and John.

SM: Cath was certainly less clear in my mind at the start of my
writing than the others were. In a certain sense, she was my lens,
my way of looking at the others. About them my feelings were
clearer. I saw Georgia as a strong, rather fixed person, a person
who has needed to be authoritative and in charge from a very
early age, and has lost, to a degree, the ability consciously to register
certain feelings on that account--though they are there,
and surface from time to time. John I saw, and wanted to draw, as
more open, more flexible. I wanted to have him growing and
learning and asking questions all his life. I love the scene in
which he offers Cath the trip to France, and then openly speculates
about whether it's a good thing or not that he's interfering
in her life. This kind of questioning, his openness to it, endeared
him to me as a character.

I learned about Cath more as I went along, as I recorded the subtle
shifts and changes in her that occurred as she discovered the
truth about Georgia and John's life.

MH: There are several moments that really hit me hard--
the one that really lingers is when Joe can't believe that Cath
has been happy in their relationship when he's been so restless.
Was Cath wrong to feel content?

SM: I don't know whether she was wrong or right. It was certainly
part of who she was that she saw and understood a serene
domestic surface as enough--so disordered was her early life in
her own family, and so troubled her first marriage. And her
model for happiness, of course, was what she understood about
her grandparents' marriage, which had that same apparent quality
of serenity, contentment.

MH: So what about marital happiness and contentment?
Georgia and John's marriage was held together by mutual
respect and history, but also by rituals and an almost formal
structuring of the days that is far less common in today's
hectic world. Is ritual an ingredient for marital happiness?

SM: I do think that one can signal a great deal with ritual, and
this certainly happens in that breakfast scene after Georgia and
John have their terrible moment of recognizing the errors
they've both made in coming together. So I think you're right to
suggest that ritual--some rituals--and people's ability to share
them may actually make their sense of happiness together
stronger. May bind them, in a variety of ways.

MH: Memory is another theme in the book--its reliability,
its emergence, what it offers us. Cath and Samuel's possible
romance breaks down, in part, over their differing views of
memory. Samuel sees memory as hopelessly subjective and
self-serving. Cath, however, believes in the truth of her
memory.

SM: I think the issues between them are less important to their
romance's breaking down than the way each of them approaches
the issues. Each is bothered by the other's insistence on his/her
own infallibility about this. Probably Samuel is less bothered--
it seems clear he would wish to continue to be involved with
Cath, in spite of what he sees as her stubbornness. But for Cath,
his absolutism is fatal to the possibility of a romance between
them, partly because she sees it as connected to his age, to a
kind of rigidity born of age; and also perhaps partly because
she connects it to an attitude toward women born of the
period Samuel grew up in and was part of. I thought of myself as
pushing the reader to think a little about the differences and
similarities between Cath, as a "modern" woman, and Georgia,
as an "old-fashioned" one, when confronted with this kind of
assertiveness on the part of the older man each is involved with.
And perhaps, too, to think of the differences between John and
Samuel.

On the other hand, Cath implicity learns a great deal about
memory from talking with Samuel; and perhaps part of her
being able to imagine the passages in the book about her grandparents
is as a result of thinking with Samuel about history and
its meaning, the imaginative entry we need to make into it to
understand it.

MH: You make numerous references to books the characters
read or are given--Willa Cather and Edith Wharton are
both mentioned several times. I know you're not suggesting
that the reader of The World Below read these books, but if
he or she did? What ties or connections might be seen?
(Except, of course, with the dreaded Ethan Frome.) What
does it say about Georgia that she loved Song of the Lark?

SM: I hoped that it would suggest that she was thinking of the
possibility of a more expansive life for herself, that this experience
in the san had opened her to the notion of a life lived on
terms different from the ones she has understood up until now to
be the necessary ones.

As for Ethan Frome--well, maybe all that needs to be said is that I
dislike that book intensely. I think that Wharton is particularly
heavy-handed in that book about the inescapability of one's
lot--though this is often her theme. And in a sense, it is the
theme here, though I'd argue that the tone is quite different.

MH: The World Below seems a very natural progression from
your last book, While I Was Gone, which was also about memory
and marital happiness, but this book is more introspec-tive,
quieter in content. In your body of work (six novels, one
book of short stories)--where does this book sit with you? If
someone loved The World Below, which of your books would
you have them read next?

SM: I do think of this book as quieter, as you suggest, than some
others--mostly about an internal process in Cath triggered by
"the story" of Georgia's life as it gets revealed. In that sense I feel
it's different from While I Was Gone, which is very dramatic, very
plot driven--as The Good Mother was, too. So I think I'd suggest
perhaps Family Pictures to someone who liked this book. Or perhaps
The Distinguished Guest. Both of them have less "action,"
more dwelling in thought.

MH: I understand that after finishing The World Below, you
finished a memoir of your father that you had been working
on for years. Did writing The World Below give you any clues
or help in finishing that book?

SM: I think it was rather the reverse: that writing and thinking
about that book--I had been working on it between and among
novels for years--fed this book. In part with the sense that I had
of learning about my father, changing in my thinking about him,
long after his death.

MH: Any new novels on the horizon?

SM: I am beginning to make notes. I hope truly to launch myself
this summer (the summer of 2002). I haven't written any fiction
in over a year now, and I feel as though I've been deprived of
some nearly chemical processes in my brain--the way, perhaps,
people deprived of REMsleep are said to feel.

Praise

Praise

"Vintage Miller: a quiet, subtle story of longing, loss, and the compensations that, surprisingly, satisfy and endure."--Kirkus Reviews


From the Hardcover edition.
Reader's Guide|About the Book|Author Biography|Discussion Questions

About the Book

The questions, discussion topics, and suggestions for further reading that follow are designed to enhance your group's reading of Sue Miller's The World Below, a moving, often surprising exploration of the things people keep hidden from those closest to them. At its heart are two women: Catherine, a twice-divorced mother of three grown children who faces new possibilities and choices as she enters her fifties, and Georgia, Catherine's grandmother, the devoted wife of a country doctor who raised Catherine and her brother after the suicide of their mentally ill mother.

About the Guide

When Catherine inherits her grandparents' house in Vermont, she takes a sabbatical from her teaching job in San Francisco and returns to the place she has always thought of as home. There, amid papers packed away in the attic, Catherine finds her grandmother's diaries--a careful, almost impersonal record of Georgia's role in keeping her family together as the oldest child in a motherless home, the bout with tuberculosis that sent her to a sanatorium at age nineteen, and her long, placid marriage to Dr. John Holbrooke, a man twenty-years her senior. It is the period of Georgia's stay at Bryce Sanatorium and the early years of her marriage that most engages Catherine, for it seems to hold answers to puzzles--including the mystery of her own mother's illness--hinted at in the stories Catherine heard from an embittered aunt and in conversations with Georgia. Piecing together diary entries, letters, and other papers, Catherine learns of Georgia's intimate relationship with a fellow patient at Bryce, where the rules of the "real" world disappear in the face of the needs and hopes of the sick and dying, and of the compromises Georgia and John make to accommodate their private desires and society's expectations.

As she uncovers the world below the loving surface of her grandparents' life together, Catherine comes to understand the impact of their secrets and of her mother's illness on the child she was and the woman she has become. Her discoveries transform her view not only of the past but of her future. When the friendship she forms with an older, retired professor in town takes a romantic turn, Catherine finds herself contemplating Georgia's sacrifices and regrets as she tries to decide whether to return to the familiar world of San Francisco or start anew in Vermont.

About the Author

Sue Miller is the best-selling author of While I Was Gone, The Distinguished Guest, For Love, Family Pictures, Inventing the Abbotts, and The Good Mother. She lives in the Boston area.


From the Hardcover edition.

Discussion Guides

1. Soon after Catherine arrives in Vermont, a real estate agent approaches her about showing the house to prospective buyers. The realtor compliments her on the house and adds that she is also enamored of the house's "story"-"in the family for generations, both your parents living here into their old age, and so forth." Catherine recoils. "The truth was I didn't want to think of any of us that way-my grandparents, my mother, me. Or to have our life here used as a selling point-all that pain and sorrow and joy-to make the house itself more appealing. We weren't the house's story, none of us." Catherine is objecting, in part, to the fact that the story is more complicated than the realtor could possibly know-more complicated than any of them could possibly know, in fact. What does she mean? How is this notion advanced throughout the novel?

2. Miller writes that as Dr. Holbrooke examined nineteen-year-old Georgia he was "already beginning to think in terms of rescue." Yet in the same chapter he reflects on the arbitrariness of fate-of death in particular-and of the bewildering weight of his power in relation to both. How do you think Dr. Holbrooke squares his discomfort with his decision to have Georgia sent to the san? How do you think the author views his actions?

3. Catherine speaks of rescue, too in the scene in which she first meets Joe. "What shall I say of Joe? That I felt rescued by him from something I hadn't been conscious of needing rescue from? That I trusted him? Both were true. I never considered that I might be rescuing him." How does this differ from Dr. Holbrook's rescue of Georgia? To what extent are all relationships, especially romantic ones, a form of rescue?

4. As young women, both Cath and Georgia felt a deep sense of shame; both of them, early on , came to believe that they were failures. Why? Discuss the parallels in their lives.

5. Shortly after receiving the news that her father is to be remarried, Georgia cuts her hair. Is this transformation an act of empowerment or of self-punishment? "She unpinned her hair and let it down-your crowning glory her mother had called it-and watched as the long bolts of it slipped and whispered to the floor? What is Georgia rejecting? What is she embracing?

6. In chapter eight, Catherine invites Samuel Eliasson back to her house, and they have a conversation about the past. Eliasson, a historian, says that he views himself as an anthropologist, of sorts; he compares the past to "another culture, another country." What does he mean? And how is this notion of the past reflected in the novel as a whole?

7. In this same conversation, Samuel describes his wife's religious devotion as "the central invisible fact of her life." He continues, "You could write her life's story without including it if you didn't know specifically about it, it was simply underneath everything. " How does this idea of a "central invisible fact" come into play elsewhere in the novel? What is the central invisible fact of Georgia's life? Of Dr. Holbrooke's? Of Catherine's? What is the central invisible fact of your own?

8. The novel takes its name from the image of a town submerged beneath the surface of a lake. Catherine glimpses this world one day while fishing on the lake with her grandfather: "I looked down again. It came and went under the moving water, the sense of what was there. There were long moments when I couldn't quite get it, when it seemed I must have imagined it. But then there it was again, sad and mysterious. Grand, somehow. Grand, because it was gone forever but still visible, still imaginable, below us." Discuss this image in relation to the novel's themes. How has the author woven it into the novel's narrative and the narrative of its individual characters? What is the "World Below"?

9. Catherine expresses a desire to begin life anew at various points throughout the novel-when she arrives with her young children on her grandparents' doorstep, after seperating from her first husband; when she arrives in Vermont to make a decision about whether to sell the house or stay on; when, as a teengager, she is offered the chance to live with Rue in Paris for a summer. Each of these moments offers her, or seems to offer her, the possibility of inventing a new self. Is this kind of self-invention possible? Discuss the author's views on identity.

10. Discuss the question above in relation to Georgia's life. Look, in particular, at Georgia's thoughts after leaving the san, and at her first conversation with Dr. Holbrooke at her father's wedding. To what extent is it possible for other people to act as a bridge between our past and future selves?

11. In chapter eleven, Georgia and Dr. Holbrooke have a heated argument in which it unfolds that their marriage has been built on a misunderstanding. Can true love ever emerge out of a falsehood, even an accidental one? How does the author shape our perception of their marriage through the course of the book?

12. During Georgia's argument with Dr. Holbrooke it is also revealed that Georgia did not have TB at the time she was sent to the san, and that Dr. Holbrooke misled her about the condition of her lungs. Dr. Holbrooke claims that he was justified in lying to her because her time at the san was beneficial-she rested, she gained strength, she was relieved of the daily burdens of caring for her family. "But it changed my life!" Georgia cries in response. What is your view of Dr. Holbrooke's decision to have her sent away? Was this an act of mercy, or a misuse of power, or both? Do we have the right to change one another's lives?

Sue Miller

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Sue Miller - The World Below

Photo © Elena Seibert

5/8/2015

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