Given the frequency with which aging men hook up with nubile babes in movies, prime-time TV, and, let’s face it, real life, you’d think that pop culture would have chewed over every last nuance of the May-December romance by now. You would be mistaken. While it is fairly obvious what draws the paunchy middle-aged dad to the dewy-eyed babysitter, why the feeling sometimes goes in the other direction remains something of a mystery. In her 1999 gem Guinevere, filmmaker Audrey Wells shined some welcome light on the subject, as did Melissa Bank in her 1999 story collection The Girls’ Guide to Hunting and Fishing. But mostly there has been silence.
Which is one reason to savor the great Sue Miller’s strong, measured new novel, Lost in the Forest. Miller has placed a steamy affair between a teenage girl and a 53-year-old furniture maker at the heart of her richly peopled and characteristically cool-eyed narrative. She has embedded this unwholesome alliance exactly where it belongs: in a knotty web of social, marital, and family ties.
The ”collateral damage” from a divorce, 15-year-old Daisy has grown up amid erotic turmoil, observing the destructive power of sex while unable to understand the source of that power. Her parents, Mark and Eva, split up when she and her sister, Emily, were small, after Mark confessed to a long-standing infidelity. As the novel begins, Eva’s second husband has just died, wreaking fresh havoc on the already makeshift family structure. Eva and Mark have become selfish in the way even doting parents do when they find themselves sexually untethered. Preoccupied by their own yearnings and midlife crises, they aren’t paying close attention to their adolescent daughters.
And when parents are distracted, there is often someone else all too ready to attend to an insecure teenage girl, especially when she is as lovely (and unaware of her loveliness) as Daisy. Duncan, the enigmatic, acerbic husband of Eva’s best friend, begins his seduction simply by noticing Daisy, taking in the tiny, personal details that everyone else is missing. And Daisy notices his noticing. Miller makes this creepy dynamic absolutely convincing; the early glimmerings of attraction are both sexy and stomach-turning. Capturing the attention of this intimidating figure (”Even singing, the man could imbue his words with sarcasm”) turns out to be a thrilling experience for a gawky girl who has not even begun to understand ”her own sexual value, her interest to others.”
She will after Duncan gets through with her. Or after she gets through with Duncan. In the sensual and exploitative affair that follows, it is never entirely clear who is using whom.
Lost in the Forest is not as big or fully rounded as some of Miller’s other books, like her 1986 debut The Good Mother or 1995’s The Distinguished Guest. A few peripheral characters here, like perky, pretty Emily, lack even the suggestion of depth. And the novel ends too suddenly, closing with a tacked-on epilogue. But as in all six of Miller’s tough, graceful novels, she pulls you into her everyday drama of people screwing up and mending (and screwing up again) their personal lives in endless, amazing variations.