What is this thing, called love?” wonders Lottie Gardner, the 43-year-old heroine of Sue Miller’s new novel, For Love. She’s staring forlornly into the window of a house in Cambridge, Mass., contemplating a scene of apparent domestic bliss. A journalist who writes about medical and psychological issues for sleek women’s magazines, Lottie is supposed to be doing an article about love and whatever happened to it. Why are there no great 20th-century love stories? But in this case the question she has borrowed from Cole Porter is desperately unprofessional. She has one foot in her own disintegrating marriage and the other in a mess of love and sex and death involving her older brother, her 20-year-old son, her neighbor, her neighbor’s husband, and her neighbor’s babysitter. The result is a 20th-century love story, ironical, disenchanted, poignant, and good, if not great. It’s written with the same subtle authenticity of detail, dialogue, and family dilemma as Miller’s first two novels, The Good Mother and Family Pictures.
The novel begins with a fatal accident, the hinge on which the story moves as it begins to shed some light on the many things called, often mistakenly, love. Lottie is alone in her mother’s old house when she hears the sirens. She’s there to fix it up with the help of Ryan, her son from a brief first marriage, so it can be sold; her alcoholic mother, sunk in dementia, has been removed to a nursing home. But the more urgent reason she’s there is to escape her second husband, a doctor in Chicago, and his sullen teenage daughter. Her relationship with Jack went sour as soon as it changed from an affair to a marriage, which happened after his wife, paralyzed by a stroke for 10 years, died. Jack seems to want Lottie to be the reincarnation of his dead, idealized Evelyn; his daughter seems to want her dead.
In the large upper-class house across the street from Lottie’s shabby childhood home another woman has fled her husband. Lottie has never liked Elizabeth Harbour, a beautiful and brisk woman who humiliated her at a party when they were girls. But Lottie’s brother, Cameron, a sedately bohemian bachelor who runs a bookstore, begs to differ. He had an affair with Harbour 20 years ago and is still in the throes of a solemn obsession. For Elizabeth, the revival of the affair is a summer’s worth of consolation; for Cameron, it’s the rearrangement of heaven and earth. It’s also something that reveals his potential for violence, accidental or otherwise.
The novel has some remarkable scenes, including Lottie’s visit to her mother, in which stable identities slip away from both of them, and Jack’s conciliatory visit to Lottie, in which fierce sex turns into fiercer argument. Jack thinks Cameron and Elizabeth are foolish. Lottie says, ”Of course they’re foolish. But they’re in love. I wish people said that about us, that we were ridiculous, that we were fools.” Lottie finally sees that Cameron’s humorless passion isn’t to be envied and isn’t exactly love, and that her own urge for a marginal, dangerous love life might have something to do with the loveless childhood she and Cameron were given. A woman who feels ”mugged by memory,” Lottie wants to obliterate the past but also to obliterate the passage of time. The young have license to be foolish in love; middle-aged people who think they’re still young most often are only still foolish. It’s suggested in the book that this sort of thing is a specialty of Lottie’s whole generation, which came of age in the youth-worshiping ’60s. The moral of the story is aimed straight at the expanding solar plexus of the baby-boomer generation. The story itself is a bit anticlimactic, as the triumph of sense over sensibility tends to be. A