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FINDING A FUTURE IN PAST

The World Below
By Sue Miller
Knopf
275 pages, $25

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For Sue Miller, family holds the answer to those bittersweet questions that gnaw at us, even shape us, from birth to death.

We are who we are because of the family given to us -- not just those in our lives now, but as "The World Below" explores, those who came before us.

In her previous works of fiction, from "While I Was Gone" to "The Good Mother," Miller has consistently and insightfully focused on the relationships at the center of women's lives -- our mothers, fathers, lovers, siblings, husbands and children. But most often, she concentrated on the here and now.

This time, though, Miller takes us back a generation or two. Cath, her main character in this fine new novel, is a twice-divorced middle-aged woman at a crossroads. What is her life, she wonders, without a husband and with adult children who need her less? Where does her career fit in, if at all. Externally and internally, Cath struggles with finding her purpose.

And so she goes back to her past, to her grandparents' house in a small town in southern Vermont. Trying to figure out her future, she leaves behind her life in California, and flees to the place where she felt safe and loved.

Her grandparents are long dead, but while staying in their home, Cath begins a journey that is as much about discovering them as it is about rediscovering herself.

Layering story upon story, Miller deftly, sensitively, unfolds Cath's awakening to her grandparents' home, their town, their journals and their secrets.

I don't want to give away too many details of this finely textured story, but Miller does take us to a world unfamiliar to the baby boomer generation, who is her most loyal readership. We are introduced to sanatoriums for people with tuberculosis, a world where medicine was unsophisticated at best, and a world that valued family ties and family loyalty, often at a high personal price.

When Cath holds up the prism of her grandmother's life, what is reflected back is her own. Both lost their mothers when they were young, both struggled with loneliness, loving but ineffective fathers and uncertain futures.

When their lives intersect for the first time, as a young Cath and her brother come to live with their grandparents after the death of their mother, the circle of family is complete and lasting.

The title of the novel reflects a place Cath visited with her grandfather, and tried to find again as an adult. It was a town that had been swallowed up by water to create a small lake. Down beneath, Cath could see the buildings that once were the center of so many lives. There was a world down there, a world that mirrored the one above.

And so it is with her life mirroring her grandmother's. The path they shared, though generations apart, are remarkably similar. If she's lucky, Cath will learn from her grandmother's journey and change the course of her own.

What's so satisfying about Miller's writing is her understanding of the intrinsic weaknesses of human nature. She allows her characters their flawed decisions and in so doing, they mirror us.

Yet, Miller communicates a hope that in the end, there will be some happiness. Usually that has to do with a return to the family, a forgiveness, an opening of the heart.

And while the family may be at the center of the struggle, it also is the key to the solution. On that, Sue Miller leaves no doubt.

Susan LoTempio is The News' assistant managing editor for features.

e-mail: slotempio@buffnews.com