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Fatal attraction

In Sue Miller's sensitive new novel, a young girl enters dangerous territory

Lost in the Forest
By Sue Miller
Knopf, 247 pp., $24.95

When an interviewer once asked her why she always wrote about the family, Sue Miller replied that -- as with Conrad and his books about the sea -- it was ''a way to write about life." Family has never been more to the fore than in ''Lost in the Forest," Miller's seventh and perhaps most unsettling novel. Her previous one, ''The World Below" (2001), touched on seven generations of a family as focused through the heroine, a granddaughter who is also a grandmother. In ''Lost in the Forest," the focus is on a single family group, disrupted by divorce and death.

It begins abruptly with a death in the family, as Mark, a wine grower in Napa Valley, is phoned by his older daughter, Emily, and summoned to the house of his former wife, Eva, whose husband, John, has been killed by a speeding car. The impact on Eva, on her daughters, Emily and Daisy (both by Mark), and small son, Theo (by John), is enormous, as it will be on Mark as well.

The book's first seven chapters (there are 15) move by design slowly and painstakingly, as the narrative passes from Mark to Eva's response to John's death: ''It wasn't until months later that Eva could bear to think of it as a process, her grief." (When someone suggests the word to her she feels as if she's been slapped.) We are filled in on her marriage to Mark, the birth of their children, his subsequent affair, and her decision that the marriage is over. After she meets and marries John, Mark tells her that ''he seems genuinely nice," and Eva replies, ''Yes, I thought I'd try nice this time." Gradually and almost imperceptibly the story concentrates on 15-year-old Daisy, a tall, basketball-playing, ''plain" young woman on the verge of becoming something rather different.

It is she of the children who, unable to show her grief, has most felt John's death: Eva sees her as ''unpretty Daisy, with her horrible posture, her unkempt hair, her droopiness -- Daisy who probably mostly didn't believe that anyone would always be there -- Daisy seemed to have pinned the little hope she held on to in that department on John."

She had written him a poem ending ''O stepfather, man among men," occasioning amusement, privately shared, on the part of Eva and John. Now with the man dead on whom she had pinned her hope, Daisy has begun to extract money on a regular basis from the cash register of her mother's bookstore, where she helps out, and is caught one day by Duncan, the husband of Eva's best friend, Gracie. Duncan, whom a serious accident has left with a disfiguring limp, is also, as Eva puts it, ''congenitally ironic." In his twisted intelligence, having caught Daisy with her hand in the till, he proposes to betray her to her mother unless she wins his complicity by showing it's ''worth something to you."

The bargain or payoff occurs precisely in the middle of the novel (Chapter 8) when Duncan picks up Daisy as she walks home from school and proceeds to show her his study (he makes furniture); then, in an extended and disturbing sequence, he seduces her. Miller has written powerfully about sex, especially in her earliest novels, ''The Good Mother" and ''Family Pictures," but never, I think, with quite the combination of attractiveness and repulsion felt here. This combination is most convincingly located in Duncan himself, ''full of opinions," as Daisy discovers when their meetings become regular sessions: opinions about Napa Valley culture having become ''absurd and precious"; about how most contemporary film directors are bad (''Bergman, he said, that fraud"); about the insipidity of American girls who have no culture, no ''deep sexuality." Controlling and manipulative, he presents himself as Daisy's savior from such insipidity.

Miller is too intelligent a writer to treat the affair without bringing Nabokov explicitly into the narrative. Near the end of the novel 14 years later, Daisy recalls her visits to a therapist who suggested she read ''Lolita"; but earlier, during the affair, there is a moment when, annoyed by Duncan's refusal to consummate the relationship, she threatens to expose him: ''I'll tell everyone you seduced me. You took advantage of me. You ruined me!" Beginning as a joke, she feels anger enter her voice though she doesn't know what she's angry at. His response is typically Duncan: ''Daisy. . . . You're hardly a nymphet. You tower over me; I tremble in your shadow. I'll tell everyone I was scared of you, that you made me do it." Such an exchange may suggest the tightly voiced, intricately wrought figure of the drama between them. Such powerful stuff might tend to run away with the novel, and it's a tribute to Miller's dramatic impartiality that she can place and further complicate Daisy by bringing into prominence -- in the second half of the novel -- not the father she has lost -- John -- but the real one she never quite had -- Mark -- who rescues her in a wholly credible way. She sees him, eventually and allegorically, as ''the noble woodman. The prince, my father." The allusion is to a childhood dinner-table game they played called ''Lost in the Forest," in which the imperiled child is saved by the improvising wits of the family members who make up the tale as they go along.

As always in Miller's work, the spirit of place tells heavily; here -- most fully registered and for the first time -- with Napa Valley, and with side trips to Nebraska, Santa Fe, and (her old territory) Chicago. But more important and distinctive is the power of a style that never announces itself as ''style" and that is consonant with a nonjudgmental poise of presentation. T. S. Eliot once wondered whether Shakespeare really ''thought" anything at all: ''He was occupied with turning human actions into poetry," Eliot decided. Something similar might be said about Miller's impartiality, her refusal to assign blame or ''explain" why things happen as they happened. Her sense of life -- one calls it that, inadequately -- is such that we are content to discover with her the powerful connections among the characters and events she imagines.

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